Comfortable and Furious

Make Way For Tomorrow (1937)


There are precious few films that you can easily access upon first viewing, yet spend a lifetime trying in vain to truly understand. These speak to a universal human experience that changes with the individual. You are not the same person necessarily with each viewing, and as experience changes your perspective, so the film shifts underneath your feet, as if to make you aware of the dynamic aspects of what it is to be human and the intangible character of art. Make Way for Tomorrow is one of those wonderfully elusive films that seems to be simultaneously well in hand and far beyond your grasp; in this way it recalls Rules of the Game, Coup de Torchon, and The Earrings of Madame de…, all essential examinations of human nature. Make Way for Tomorrow shares their deceptively simple surface and deep characterization and structure that creates far more than the sum of its parts.

Ostensibly it is about an elderly couple who are financially broken and must live with their children, all of whom see them as a burden. If this was it, then its appeal would not be universal. In fact, this is a blueprint by which you could begin to understand what it means to grow old, and as your strength and talents wane, you no longer are able to fit in to a world that has passed you by. A world that you helped create. Even this does not really get to the heart of the matter, since everyone can relate to the events of this astonishingly efficient film. In 91 minutes, Make Way contains all you need to know about how the human condition changes with time; impetuous youth, brimming with optimism and impulsivity; withered elderly, utterly spent and reflective; and that uncomfortable period between when the strength of youth ebbs and you have the beginnings of wisdom enough to realize how irrelevant and weak you will become.

This is your life – love, loss, the moment upon which a life depends, and drifting memory. Though the experience of viewing it is an extraordinary one, it is also complete entertainment, with enough humor and sadness to fill ten such movies. Following my usual habit, I opened a bottle of wine to complement the film, but proceeded to forget it was there. It pulls you in, and you feel as though you were let in on a great secret.

Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi were never better playing Ma and Pa Cooper, a happily married couple just passing their fiftieth anniversary.  Their communication is with a deficit of words, not out of contempt, but with that familiarity that comes with a lifetime together – gestures and inflections say more than enough. Their house has been of great comfort, but as Pa has lost his job (or retired – likely a combination of the two), so the house has followed, and they must tread on uncertain ground. Their children have gathered for a meeting, and upon discovery that the house they stood to inherit now belongs to the bank, they beat a most visual and verbal retreat. So where do the couple live? Nobody is able – by which I mean willing – to take both. And so, for the first time in fifty years, they are forced to separate. It is to the credit of director Leo McCarey that this never descends into treacly Capracrap territory. Their disappointment and heartache are evident every moment, but they are also accepting, and will weather this as they have all other problems. No point is underlined, no speech made unnecessarily. When a character threatens to issue a monologue, it is the sort of thing people with a lifetime of experience tend to say when the moment is right. And somehow, the moment is always just right.

The children are ungrateful, but never demonic; just the usual spoiled adults who have stuff and things and do not wish to share them as is their right. You will uncomfortably see yourself in them, even the most empathetic of the cast, as it is only human to be selfish. As the children watch each of the elderly couple, their spouses do their best to deal with a situation that they did not bargain for. Routines are disrupted, rooms are taken up, plans are made difficult as the kids do their best to find someone else to take care of the burden that is the aging parent. The sense of duty itself becomes stifling, and nobody is more aware of it than Ma and Pa. Tokyo Story was influenced by this difficult theme – difficult because there is no right or wrong necessarily. It is difficult to reconcile the desires and drive of youth with the breakdown and fatigue of age. And modern society, as it must, moves ever on without making room for any compromise.

With time, and the increasing desperation of the kids, Ma and Pa are presented with final and harsh options. A lesser film would have indifferent and hateful villains in the role of their children, but painfully we must understand that this is a reasonable reaction.   Indifferent, self-centered, and spiteful, but never mustache-twirling evil. The parents do get in the way, and they are annoying, and do not adapt well to their new circumstances. The kids do not understand – nor can they – what it means to grow old. Truth be told, nobody really wants to understand how it feels to allow your faculties to slip away as mortality approaches. The film gets this across with wonderfully subtle touches in every look and every word of dialogue.

The third act throws in a curve ball that pushes Make Way for Tomorrow well into the territory of greatness – I will not spoil this with a single detail, except that the scenes and the strangers they meet coalesce into what may be one of the greatest sequences ever filmed. You want to understand how it feels to lose everything, including the person you have loved all your life? With this, you may be on your way. It is in equal measures wrenching, funny, heartwarming, and all those things that we go to the movies to experience. Ma and Pa Cooper show us how it feels to, however briefly, have all you need. I was on my feet at one point, which looks ridiculous if you are watching a film at home.

Leo McCarey brings a wonderfully unobtrusive hand to the proceedings – the stage is set to perfection, but the setting never gets in the way of the performers. He provides that careful balance of intimacy and empathy with just enough humor to evade sticky melodrama. The interaction between the actors has a lived-in feel to it, giving free rein to nuance and nearly imperceptible gestures. What is truly masterful, however, is the  dialogue, written as though by a person who has been around long enough to know what the future holds in store. The response by Ma Cooper to the 17-year old girl’s exhortation about facing facts and giving up hope is truly priceless.

“When you are seventy, about the only fun you have left is pretending that there ain’t any facts to face.” This elderly couple at first appears pitiable and weak in the face of their impoverished state and decay of age – but such passages indicate an extraordinary strength at heart that blossoms in the third act. Though we are weaned on the belief that we can conquer all comers with the power of hope and faith, it is a natural station in life to realize just how facile those forces can be. Ultimately everyone is overpowered by death, irrelevance, impotence, and ignorance. The greatest strength is required not to fight these things, but to understand and accept them, and walk the bleakest mile of our lives alone.



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