Leo McCarey had a strong hand and a clear eye, like a jeweler. He lifted life to the Light, turning it, looking for the flaws, the glimmer – and then he held it out. Tonight I took in every facet of his best film, Make Way for Tomorrow (1937).
Made and set in 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, after Social Security was passed but before payments were issued,* the film follows four children playing a sad game of hot potato with parents Lucy (Beulah Bondi) and Barkley (Victor Moore) whose home has been repossessed by the bank. In a reversal of convention, the parents separate for the sake of the children – Lucy lives with one of them in the city, Barkley with another in the country, thousands of miles apart.
And the children they raised begin to lower them.
The children don’t decide to do this, but they’re still young, there’s still a race to be run, and hurdles must be removed, or lowered enough to step over. Lucy is treated like contraband, smuggled away before company arrives; a granddaughter stows her at the movies and sneaks off for a spree. Barkley is quarantined to the couch during a bad cold, then hustled across icy floors into the nicest bed just before the doctor arrives.
And yet, you can’t get angry at the children. McCarey was an equal opportunity empathizer, perhaps because before he was a film director, he was a lawyer.* He claimed he was so bad they chased him out of the courtroom and he ran until he reached Hollywood; that’s a funny bit, which, after seeing his films, nobody would believe. Every character’s actions are defended, even as the actor’s faces plead guilty.
And actors loved McCarey. Often scenes were improvised and then written. Sometimes, before filming, he would play the piano and sing, leading everyone to the right feeling.
This sensitivity is revealed in every film, in every performance, from the stars down to the extras. Especially in the best scene in Make Way for Tomorrow. It’s a bridge party at one of the children’s apartment where Lucy is staying, and Barkley calls.
“Hello?” Lucy shouts. “Is that you, Bark?” A society woman turns to the source of this disturbance, disgusted, as if a parrot has just repeated a dirty limerick. “This is Lucy, Bark. How are you?” She shouts louder. “I say how are you?” She shouts even louder. At this point the partygoers are exasperated and exacerbating their own exasperation.
But gradually, almost imperceptibly, within the span of Lucy’s devastating two minute monologue, they have forgotten how to play bridge and are trying to remember how to be human. In front of our eyes, the performances bloom, like flowers in time lapse photography: slow and sudden and frozen and pulsating.
And all the time, the intergenerational tension is tightening. I cannot tell you who was stronger, because at the end, I wasn’t certain. I was thinking about my grandpa, the one who died years ago, after serving his time at an assisted living center. The dementia was so advanced that only a half hour after his wife’s funeral, we had to again tell him, through a mirage of tears, that she was gone.
*Thanks to Peter Bogdanovich, Gary Giddins and the Criterion Collection for the biographical and production details.