Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Make Way For Tomorrow (1937)

Sometimes, I get confused about the title of this movie. Is it, Make Way for Tomorrow or Make Room for Tomorrow. It's easy to verify the answer, because the story isn't about making room or accommodating. It's about pushing things that are inconvenient or not primary to your lifestyle out of the way. The current generation is a bulldozer coming through. Make way, clear a path, you're going down.

I'd never seen the movie until recently. Because an air of soft, droll humor wafted through every scene (a signature wave from director Leo McCarey) and it aired during the holiday season, when a miracle rounds every corner -- whether you're on 34th Street or not -- I was expecting a happy ending. Boy was I surprised. It's heartbreaking really. I don't know if the humor softens the blow, so much as conducts it.

Uncannily, this movie felt more timely today than it would have even five years ago. An elderly couple Barkley and Lucy Cooper, lose their home to foreclosure. They wait until the last minute to tell their children, always hoping that something improbable will happen to correct everything. And that's how the movie really hits home, portraying the denial we often live in, refusing to face facts and accept (or proactively change) the worse, preferring instead to hope we'll win the lottery and all our problems will be solved. As a viewer, I wasn't the only one expecting a happy ending, Lucy and Barkley were waiting for one too. Lucy is ditched at a movie by her granddaughter and later recounts the plot, where just as everything seems blackest, the lovers are reunited. That's the false hope of life.

They call a family meeting just days before they're about to be thrown out onto the street. They have five adult children, but none are willing to take both parents in, so they separate. Barkley goes to one son's home and Lucy to another's. Neither are welcome additions. Barkley is cantankerous and difficult and would try anyone's patience. Lucy, on the other hand, is merely inconvenient and passive-aggressively needy. But the kids promise that within 3 months the parents will be back together. The rich daughter says she will take them in, then. But the truth is, she can't even be bothered to sit her mother for one night, much less the rest of the woman's days. So, inevitably the 3 month promise, the one Lucy and Barkley repeated constantly to ease the pain of being apart, is broken to be replaced by other assurances of reunion that are weaker than the first. It's a great metaphor of an entire life cycle. You start out with expectation and dreams. Then comes disappointment. Then you settle again and again, accepting less every time. A prospect that was once unthinkable eventually becomes desperate refuge. Death is the final betrayal. But you, Lucy and Barkley lie to yourselves and each other, pretending that you don't see it coming.

Taking up residence with her eldest son, Lucy annoys her daughter-in-law, Anita, and granddaughter, Rhoda, simply because she joins in any gatherings they have at the home and distracts the guests. At worst, her comments and remembrances are boring. Generally speaking, they're quaint, perhaps even charming. Yet, the daughter and granddaughter are deeply annoyed by Lucy's intrusion into the social functions where they are accustomed to presiding.

But as bothersome as they are, when strangers are moved by Lucy and Barkley's plight, you'd think there own children would be as well. George's wife teaches bridge and though her pupils were initially irritated by Lucy, when they overhear a (loud) telephone conversation between Lucy and the husband who misses her. She is overcome by their brief exchange, but chides Barkley that he shouldn't have spent money for the call. He could have used it on a warm scarf. Her listeners bow their heads in empathy and compassion fills the room as she totters off to bed earlier than expected. In the heart swell, I half expected the card players to take up a collection for her. Barkley too captures the heart of a shopkeeper who becomes choked up just reading a letter that Lucy wrote to her husband (300 miles away). Touched, the shopkeeper calls to his own wife after Barkley leaves, just wanting to make sure the woman is still there.

I feel that strangers would do more to keep the elderly Coopers together than their family does, but is that how life is? If you live with a nuisance, however small, day in and out does it numb. Do you only feel sympathy at a distance and in big, isolated waves, because up close and ongoing tragedy becomes mundane and less important than the every day grind of living? Young people (and the Cooper children are themselves middle aged) are too caught up in their own comforts to care -- or care enough -- about their parents heartrending plight. It's significant that the movie does not paint the kids as helpless. Not all of them are rich, like daughter Nellie, but three are middle-classed. If they made an attempt, they could devise a plan to pool their resources and support the elder Coopers, if that was a priority for them. But it would take time, attention and concerted effort among the five and they can't spare that. Their suffering matters less than the next generation's ease, a philosophy that can also be more generally applied to the present day fight between those that want the government fund Medicare, health care and social security and those who don't. An unfortunate problem, but it shouldn't be mine to fix.

When Bark's shopkeeper friend suggests that he and Lucy become caretakers of an inn, Barkley scoffs, as if the position would be beneath them. But we see him looking for work. He passes a help wanted sign and asks, because he's lost his glasses, if there's an opening for a bookkeeper. "No," a stranger mutters. "Were you a bookkeeper?" "I am a bookkeeper," Bark declares as he shuffles past in the snow. And this is the seed from which Death of a Salesman might have grown.

This 75 year old movie establishes that the Me Generation wasn't just born. It's always been there, is perhaps endemic to human nature. The self-centered and callous attitude of youth is not new to our era.

Another sign that the more things change the more they stay the same is an exchange between Lucy and granddaughter Rhoda (not yet in college): Rhoda is sneaking out behind her parents' back to date a 35 year old man. Grandma thinks she should meet beaus her own age, plus she says that dating too much will taint Rhoda's image. No man wants a girl who has dated many. Rhoda disagrees: the more you date the more men who wait in line to date you. Lucy says that they don't marry those women. Rhodas counter that she's seen plenty of women who marry after having done everything but commit murder!

Still deeply in love, Barkley and Lucy communicate by letter and phone, but long distance is expensive, so calls must be rationed. Barkley assures Lucy that they will be reunited as soon as he gets a job and can support them again. To a present day audience, his hopes are not entirely delusional. As the Coopers, Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore are made up to look older than they actually are. Even so, considering that both Barkley and Lucy are still spry enough to walk all over the city and keen enough to understand everything that their ungrateful children don't say, it's not hard to believe that Barkley could still be a productive member of any workforce. But everyone, including Lucy, knows it will never be. She simply humors him. Employers don't want him any more than his offspring do. Thus, Bark's optimistic job hunting becomes a more painful prick, each time it is revisited in the script.

Interestingly, this movie was released the very year that Social Security went into effect. United States workers began paying into the system in 1937, but no one received their first monthly check until 1940. I wonder if this movie was made as a bit of propoganda in support of the legislation. Following the depression, many Americans lost their homes to the banks, like Lucy and Barkley did. The unemployment rate was high, as it is today. The brunt of the financial hardships fell on senior citizens who had the least hope of recouping their losses with new jobs, which is why the Old-Age, Survivor and Disability Insurance program came into being, giving birth to the Social Security Act of 1935. Barkley and Lucy seem like poster children for its passage.

At her son's house, Lucy's welcome is wearing even thinner. The granddaughter, Rhoda, is so mortified when Lucy interacts with her guests, that she stops entertaining at home. She eventually ends up staying out all night, much to her mother's horror. Apparently, this gal would rather compromise her virtue and all standing in their cliquish community, than expose her friends to Nana's yammering. It's evident that Rhoda and her mother had few true values to begin with and faced with the slightest imposition, they soon throw the remainder out the window. They are shallow and uncaring and their patriarch George (Lucy's son) is too weak to challenge them. When his wife tells him that Lucy has to go, for Rhoda's sake, George concedes with shame, but little opposition.

I'm not saying that the children's reactions are outrageous. There are many compassionate families that would buckle under the strain of bringing loved but trying relatives into their household. But Lucy faces cruel words that make a painful situation devastating, as when Rhoda angrily tells her to stop indulging Barkley's pipe dream about someday finding a job. The cold barb's rob Lucy of dignity in a way that mere homelessness could not.

When George approaches his mother, to tell her that she is being sent to a nursing home, he can't find the words. Anticipating what he wants to impart, Lucy preemptively tells him that it is she who wants to leave, claiming that she'll actually enjoy the elegant facility. She only asks that Barkley never be told where she is going. He wouldn't understand. Let Barkley think she is still with George, who can forward letters from his mother to father from his home address. Hating his own cowardice, George agrees to this plan, later telling his insensitive wife that she should be very proud of him that day.

Meanwhile, Barkley's daughter is just as tired of having him as a border (though her irritation is more justified than George's family's is) and arranges to have him shipped off to her sister in California. He will be able to have one brief meeting with his beloved wife, during a short interruption in his train trip across the country.

The reunited Coopers get to spend one day together, 5 whole hours, before it's time to part. They make an odyssey of it, revisiting places they went on their honeymoon and recalling moments from the half century they spent together. Lucy says that happiness comes at different times for different people. Some get it all in the end, some get it in the beginning, but theirs was spread across the many decades, so they shouldn't complain if it's over now -- after all they've had so much. As they look in shop windows, Barkley sees a "help wanted" sign and darts in to look for work, trying not to left his wife know and smoothly providing a cover store when he is rejected yet again. One last ditch effort to avoid the inevitable.

At the same hotel they stayed at when their marriage was young, Barkley and Lucy both enjoy a drink, though Lucy does so only hesitantly. After all, in her day women didn't imbibe in public! They share a dance, with the other patrons politely deferring when the band strikes up "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" in the Coopers' honor. The hotel manager graciously listens to the Coopers reminisce. Upon learning that they have 5 children, he says that they must have given Lucy and Barkley much pleasure. Bark dryly notes that the man must never have had children of his own, if he thinks that!

The hours pass, almost as quickly as their life together did. The children are waiting for the elder Coopers at George's apartment, where they were to share one last dinner as a family. Barkley stands them up, closing the door of the phone booth so that Lucy (and the audience) can't hear him telling his son off. Back at the house, the guilty children have no defense. They knew they were miserable wretches for the way they were treating their parents. They just didn't know that Lucy and Barkley knew!

Lucy and Barkley go to the train station alone, having cut the time so short that the children are (thankfully) unable to serenade Barkley before he makes the long journey to California. There is only Lucy to say goodbye. He tells her that he will find a job in California and send for her. They will be together again before she knows it. She pretends to believe him. But just in case -- in case they don't meet again -- perish the silly thought, Lucy wants to know that there is no other man on earth she'd rather have spent her life with. Barkley answers in kind. He cherished every minute they had.

He boards the locomotive and Lucy waves him goodbye, running to catch every last glimpse of him in the moving windows, until he's gone from sight. End credits.

I was stunned. I kept expecting a last minute reprieve. Surely the remorseful children would devise a way to keep Lucy and Barkley together at the last minute. But this isn't the fanciful type of movie where remorse trumps self-interest. There's no happy ending, giving this movie a realism that seems current, no matter how dated the scenery or dialogue. And the lack of melodrama in Lucy and Barkley's parting made it all the more heartbreaking. So often, the most cataclysmic breaches come with a whisper, not a whimper, much less a bang. Your world ends, but the train wheels never brake.

Side notes: I'm not surprised at the number of times Louise Beavers has played a maid, but I had no idea some of them were named Mamie. Here, Mamie, George's housekeeper, resented Lucy's inclusion in the household as much as her mistress did, because it meant she sometimes had to stay late. When it's time for Lucy to leave for the nursing home, Mamie regrets her past behavior, in the face of Lucy's graciousness.

I laughed when George avoided kissing his unpleasant sister by claiming he had a bad cold -- directly after kissing the other one. Somehow, I didn't think they were as aware of the passage of germs through kissing 70 years ago as we are today. I guess bacteria has always proven a pretty handy excuse, for avoiding the undesirable.

After watching Make Way my thoughts were plagued with ideas on how Lucy and Bark could have stayed together, but that would have defeated the writers' purpose. He parted them to drive the hurt home. The point was not to save the characters, but to prompt audience members to go out and make the world better for their real life parents.

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