Best Picture of 1937 (#1) – Make Way for Tomorrow

Greetings from beautiful Las Vegas, Nevada where I am staying at the MGM Grand readying myself for another marathon tomorrow morning.  This one is especially exciting for me as we will run up and down the Vegas Strip for the first half of the race.  That should be an exhilarating run.  I have not, however, come to Las Vegas to neglect my 1937 countdown, like I did when I went to Big Bear for Thanksgiving last weekend.  So, high above the clamor of the slot machines, the staggering drunks, and lavishly expansive buffets, here is the best picture of 1937…

Make Way for Tomorrow

(United States)

Producer and Director, Leo McCarey (Paramount); Screenplay, Viña Delmar; Cinematography, William C. Mellor; Original Music, George Antheil and Victor Young; Editor, LeRoy Stone; Art Direction, Hans Dreier and Bernard Herzbrun

Cast: Victor Moore (Barkley Cooper), Beulah Bondi (Lucy Cooper), Fay Bainter (Anita Cooper), Thomas Mitchell (George Cooper), Porter Hall (Harvey Chase), Barbara Read (Rhoda Cooper), Maurice Moscovitch (Max Rubens), Louise Beavers (Mamie)

In the opening scenes of Leo McCarey’s classic Make Way for Tomorrow Barkley and Lucy Cooper awkwardly tell their middle aged children that they will be evicted from their house in a matter of days.  Their children are stunned.  What will they do?  Clearly the Coopers have no plan.  They simply relied on a vague, but confident faith in the goodwill of their children.  Surely they would come through and offer them a place to live in their time of need.

The Coopers' horrified children

 

Their children George, Cora, Robert, and Nellie (and another daughter who lives in California – too far to take part in this discussion) understand the assumption and they immediately envision their comfortable lifestyles being cramped with their aged parents living in their homes.  But what else can they do?  They can’t leave their parents out in the cold no matter how inconvenient they would make life.  (What would people say?)  No one, however, jumps at the opportunity to take them in.  They know their siblings and once their parents are comfortably settled in their household, they wouldn’t ever be able to pawn them off on another.  Finally, like a cornered animal, Nellie agrees to take them in, but she needs to talk to her husband and arrange matters.  She “practically promises” that they will be able to move in within a few months.  In the meantime the Coopers will have to be separated.  Ma Cooper will go live with her son George (Thomas Mitchell), sharing a room with her teenage daughter Rhoda (Barbara Read).  Pa Cooper will go stay on Cora’s living room couch.  It isn’t an ideal situation, but it will do until Nellie comes through.

George and Anita ponder their problem ... and their rottenness (Thomas Mitchell and Fay Bainter)

 

The couple of more than 50 years, never having been separated before, sadly but without complaint moves into their children’s homes.  And in both households the presence of the elderly grandparents crimps their children’s lives, but they keep telling themselves that it’s only for three months.  But when Nellie’s husband refuses to allow them to come live in his home, the situation gets more complicated.  The once slight annoyance of their presence threatens to be a taste of the future.  Independently George and his wife Anita (Fay Bainter) in the city and Cora (Elisabeth Risdon) and her husband in the country plots the best way to rid of their house of its unwelcome guest.

The genius of this movie is that writer Viña Delmar and director Leo McCarey don’t characterize the children as villains.  They aren’t bad people.  They love their parents and want to see them live happily and in comfort – but it’s easier when they only have to see them for holidays and birthdays.  Once they are in their homes their love and commitment are severely tested.  George’s wife Anita wants to do right by her mother-in-law, but how is she supposed to respond when Ma Cooper joins – uninvited – a bridge party, distracting everyone with her squeaky rocking chair and answering simple, just-to-be-polite questions with long detailed accounts of her day?  Anita is mortified, though her guests seem to take it all in stride.  They probably have their own elderly parents to contend with.

The selfishness of the children is understated, but also painfully uncomfortable for the audience.  We love Barkley and Lucy Cooper.  They are a pair of sweet old people and we want to see nothing but the best for them, but at the same time we can’t help but identify with their children.  We can’t help but wonder what we would do in a similar situation and shudder at the possibilities.  (Or, even worse, we have already been faced with it and we don’t like ourselves much.)  So as much as we would love to admonish their children, we can’t help but sympathize, making us feel even guiltier.  As much as George understands that it’s their duty to take them in, he also understands the strain that it’s having on his family – not an unreasonable concern.  Should his daughter – a teenager hungry for privacy – really have to share her room with her grandmother?  At the same time he understands that most of his brothers and sisters are unable or unwilling to do their part.  Why should he and his sister Cora shoulder so much of the burden?

The question McCarey wants us to face though is: why does care for the elderly, especially those who have cared for and loved us all our lives, have to be a burden?  Why can’t the five Cooper children come together and reach an agreement?  They could agree to rotating visits for a few months at each child’s home or propose a pool of money that they contribute to each month allowing Barkley and Lucy to live in a small apartment together.  Their selfishness, lack of commitment and imagination brings about one of the more heartbreaking endings of any movie I’ve seen.  Reunited for what they know will be the last time, Lucy and Barkley ponder their lives together and put on brave faces for the loneliness that lies ahead.  They never rebuke their children, no matter how much they might deserve it, but their disappointment is clear.  They depended on them only to be let down.  That they receive more kindliness and consideration from strangers – a car salesman who takes them for a drive around Manhattan, a hotel manager who helps them relive their honeymoon – must sting.

But isn’t it easier to go out of our ways for an elderly couple we don’t know, to smile and listen to their stories, than one we’ve known our entire lives?  We won’t be burdened with their presence at home, having to listen to the same stories again and again.  I can’t tell you how many times I heard my own Grandma’s repetitive stories about spilling tea on Eleanor Roosevelt, being an extra in Buster Keaton’s 1927 classic College, or being confronted by demanding Bette Davis when she was on duty as a nurse in her hospital.  All great stories for people who’ve never heard them, but try listening to them 20 or 30 times … a year.  I loved that old lady, but how hard would it have been to live with her?  I would like to say I would have done it willingly, but who am I kidding?  Hopefully my mother and Everett’s mother will benefit from some maturity and insight that I hope I have attained over the years.  If they end up living with us they may have Make Way for Tomorrow to thank.

It’s a great movie – emerging as one of my all time favorites – about the precariousness of growing old, the fraying of family bonds in the face of modern life which places little value on them, and what we are willing to sacrifice for those we love.  It is anchored by two lovely performances from Beulah Bondi as Lucy and Victor Moore as Barkley.  They create credible individual characters and, more importantly, a couple awash in rich history.  We sense this history in the scenes they share; it’s all in their eyes.  And after they have been separated there is an implicit emptiness.  They both look a little lost without the other.  Without the charm – and frank irritability – of Bondi and Moore we wouldn’t believe them or their children’s dilemma.  That makes McCarey’s accomplishment – a sad, realistic ending from Paramount, one of Hollywood’s most consistent dream factories – all the more astonishing.  We want the happy ending to swoop down and save them, but it won’t.  McCarey isn’t preventing it for some high minded artistic reason, but because this is what would have happened, what happens all the time, in these situations.  There’s nothing fake or Hollywood about this picture, the best of 1937.

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12 Comments

Filed under 1937, Yearly Best Pictures

12 responses to “Best Picture of 1937 (#1) – Make Way for Tomorrow

  1. And the winner is … a flick that I never heard of.

    At least I can say, I like Thomas Mitchell – know him from two Jean Arthur films: ADVENTURE IN MANHATTAN (1936) and ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (1939). A bit choleric his characters, so he seems to be quite fitting for this problematic story here.

    I didn’t get the story a 100% but there is one point I got to challenge: If you care for old people and they get on your nerves you have always the right to say: “Sorry, I can’t listen now – I’m tired and besides I know that story already.”
    We’ve got only one set of nerves and if they get worn out it’s too late. So in order to be able to go on caring for those people we got to mind our own health too.

  2. Pingback: Christmas Trees, Takemitsu Festival – “Woman in the Dunes,” “Antonio Gaudi,” “The Ceremony” and Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” at Monday Morning Diary (December 6) « Wonders in the Dark

  3. “The selfishness of the children is understated, but also painfully uncomfortable for the audience. ”

    Indeed Jason, and as we both know this crisis of conscience is at the center of Ozu’s TOKYO STORY, which was inspired by the earlier film. I agree that McCarey’s film, once underestimated is emerging as a bonafide American classic, and by any barometer of measurement it is one of the most telling and wrenching films about old age ever produced. Hence, this is a marvelous choice for the #1 spot, and I keep going back and forth with this, the Renoir and a few others for this designation, though I may just second the motion when I firm my own listing up. Robin Wood and Bernard Tavernier have penned beautiful essays on the film, and the former is a lifelong admirer.

    I am thrilled to hear you are having such a memorable time in Vegas, (hope to hear more about it when you return) and I love that introductory lead-in announcing your choice here!

    • Well I can’t wait to see how you would order this list, but like I said to David, my top three are really a toss up. The more I thought about it though, the more this movie stood out, especially since there are so many people, even classic movie lovers, who haven’t seen or heard of it. I have a feeling that you may not be as supportive of my next choice for most overrated of 1937. That post will be up in a day or two. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to your list for 1937.

  4. I really liked your piece and think you raise some great points about aging and tensions between generations, but must say I had my reservations about the movie, although I’m glad to have seen it. I thought the first two thirds or so were very good, though I found it slightly hard to believe some of the plot details on a factual level. I especially liked the whole sequence where the father has a cold and his friend calls round with the chicken soup – also the conflict between the mother and daughter-in-law and the feeling of the lack of space in the house.
    But I would have to say for me the film plunges into sentimentality as soon as the elderly couple get together for their visit to the hotel (where I note we never see them paying a bill) and the ride with the kindly car salesman who isn’t bothered about making a sale.
    My favourite movie out of those I’ve seen from 1937 is probably Wellman’s ‘A Star Is Born’ – it was a great year for him as he also made ‘Nothing Sacred’ that same year.

    • Judy you know I love you and respect your opinion immensely, but I think you may need to give this movie another shot. I recommend that because I had a so-so reaction to it the first time I saw it too. I watched it again for this project and fell in love with it. I’ve seen it a couple more times and each time my appreciation for it has grown each time. Yes, the last act is sentimental, but it’s a sweet sentimentality. I found it deeply ironic that these complete strangers — the car salesman and the hotel manager — are more decent towards them than their own children. As I said in my review, I think McCarey was suggesting we more easily connect with old people we don’t know because it reminds us how we’ve neglected our own elderly relatives. We use strangers to allay our own guilt. The hotel manager (who signed off on their bill) and the car salesman respond as they should to any nice old couple. And it makes the heartbreaking farewell scene all the more bitter.

      I’ve never been a huge fan of A STAR IS BORN, though I know it enjoys a strong following and I can understand why you like it so much. I don’t know why I never responded to it though. I think NOTHING SACRED is a better movie, but that one still didn’t make my top ten list of the year.

      • Thanks very much, Jason – I do sometimes find that I feel differently about a movie on a second viewing, so will probably give this another try though I will probably wait for a bit. I suppose I felt that the contrast between the strangers and their own children was too obvious and I didn’t really believe in the kindly car salesman and hotel manager (sorry, I didn’t notice him signing off on the bill). I did think a lot of the earlier scenes worked well, but my feeling is that it fell off later on. Anyway, thank you again!

  5. Jon McMillan

    There is a wonderful moment from the 1937 Academy Awards Ceremony; preserved on film and found in the twentieth minute of the “Frank Capra Jr. Remembers,” accompanying special feature for the dvd, “You Can’t Take It With You,” where Capra Sr., presents the Oscar to McCarey, shakes his hand, and then reaching back, grabs the statuette by the torso and with a good-natured, smiling expression, proceeds to attempt to wrestle it away from Mr. McCarey. What Mr. Capra seems to jokingly be trying to say is that he felt he should have won the award for his film, “Lost Horizon.” The ten-second clip ends before we see who wins the match, but we know that it is indeed McCarey, as we’re certain Mr. Capra would surrender it gracefully. And besides, Mr. McCarey has a hold of “Oscar” by the base.

    Then as he steps up to the podium to speak about his quirky 1937 comedy, Mr. McCarey said to all those in attendance, “Thanks, but you gave this to me for the wrong picture.”

    Can’t imagine any modern day director having the courage to say such. I saw this in the early 70’s and welcome its deserved restoration and arrival more than any other picture. It belongs in the class of “movies that nobody knows but me,”…until now that is. It was hard loving it so and having it so unknown. It’s recent rise to prominence further reinforces that the films I loved as a naive teenager are indeed truly the great ones.

    • That sounds like a great clip Jon! I need to look for that. I did know that McCarey did say they gave it to him for the wrong picture and, as much as I love The Awful Truth, I have to agree. I think it must have been easier to say something like that back in 1937 since the Oscars were still fairly intimate industry affairs. Yes, they were broadcast on the radio, but they didn’t have anywhere near the audience they have now.

      It is a shame that this movie had been pretty much forgotten for decades and I can imagine how depressing it must have been to have seen the movie and loved it when no one else had, or had the ability to see it. Luckily though it has been championed by some prominent critics and had a Critereon release. More and more people have had a chance to see it and its stock has risen. It’s a fantastic movie and it shows you had great taste even as a, as you put it, naive teenager. Thanks for stopping by and commenting Jon. Hope to hear from you again.

  6. Jon McMillan

    New York Times, May 10, 1937

    Leo McCarey’s ‘Make Way for Tomorrow’…has three qualities rarely encountered in the cinema: humanity, honesty and warmth. These precious attributes, nurtured and developed by the best script Vina Delmar has written, by Mr. McCarey’s brilliant direction and by the superb performances of Victor Moore, Beulah Bondi and the rest, have produced an extraordinarily fine motion picture, one that may be counted upon to bid for a place among the ‘ten best’ of 1937…”

    Review by Frank S. Nugent
    (imdb this fella)

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