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
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.
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.
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.