Valentine’s Day is this week, so every day, one Dissolve writer will recommend a film that says something unusual or intriguing about love and relationships. Today, Keith Phipps talks about Make Way For Tomorrow, Leo McCarey’s 1937 drama about a pair of senior citizens trying to find homes with their adult children after losing their house to creditors.
Tasha: Okay, Keith, what did you find especially interesting about Make Way For Tomorrow’s thoughts on love?
Keith: I think we should establish up top that this is one of the saddest movies ever made, with an ending I still have a hard time believing is the actual ending of the film. (And, as Gary Giddins points out on the DVD’s extra features, there was much pleading for director Leo McCarey to end the film differently.) But the reason it’s so intensely sad is the warm depiction of two senior citizens in love that precedes it. Make Way For Tomorrow is the product of a years-long nationwide debate that led to the passing of the Social Security Act Of 1935, even though the words “social security” never appear in the film itself. Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi play Bark and Lucy Cooper, an elderly married couple who, after exhausting their savings and losing their house, are forced to separate and move in with two of their five children. Consequently, the film keeps them apart for much of the film’s first hour, until a final half-hour in which they’re able to spend a day in New York reminiscing about their honeymoon 50 years earlier, before Bark is sent to live with a daughter in California, ostensibly for his health, but actually because the cold-hearted daughter who’s been hosting him can’t stand having him around anymore.
The whole film is sad, but that last half-hour is a heartbreaker, letting us see how much the couple loves each other, but also how much better off they are with each other than apart. Away from each other, Lucy’s a pest and Bark’s a grump. Together, they balance each other out. They also make each other happy: Watching them stroll New York together, remembering (or half-remembering) their last trip there, as they reflect on the many disappointments and sustaining joys of their marriage, means seeing what “till death do us part” means—and feeling the tragedy of their being robbed of it.
Tasha: This is an unusually message-driven film. Even seeing it outside its historical context, without the awareness of the Social Security debate—which Giddins says was, at the time, as controversial and culturally ubiquitous as the health-care debate is right now—the rhetorical weight is very clear, from the “Honor your father and mother” quote at the beginning to the way McCarey pointedly equates Bark and Lucy with the second-class citizens of their era: Lucy with the black maid, whom she treats as a comfortable equal, and Bark with the Jewish store-owner who’s become his close friend. There’s a sense of Biblical parable about all this, and to some degree, a sense that Bark, Lucy, and their relationship are being idealized. Did the agenda at all interfere with your appreciation of the love story?
Keith: Not really, in part because McCarey keeps complicating it. Cora, the daughter Bark ends up with, is pretty much a total shit, but George’s family, though they don’t always handle Lucy’s presence well, is more sympathetic. The film spends a lot of time showing how caring for parents is a burden, and there’s a sense that it’s impossible for children—from those who try to be respectful to those who don’t try to hide their peevishness—to appreciate their parents. I like that this film—like Tokyo Story, which it helped inspire—gives us a distance from which to ponder the way one generation never really appreciates the other: their experiences, their sacrifices, and their desires. It’s a sad truth that’s easier to confront in art than in life.
So is the fact the all love stories reach some kind of an end, even those that last a lifetime. The end of Make Way For Tomorrow’s is a whopper because Lucy and Bark get separated needlessly. But it also hits hard because they take leave of each other not with one standing by the other’s deathbed, but standing up—yet there’s still the same sense of finality. Neither of them have many years left. They may tell themselves it isn’t not the end, but both know it is. No matter how much they love each other, there are some obstacles love can’t beat back.
Tasha: The movie rides such a fine line between making them sweet and making them annoying. In the former column: their devotion. In the latter: their passivity. It’s one thing when Lucy and Bark don’t argue when their kids decide to separate them. But even when shopkeeper Max offers to get the older couple a job together as housekeepers, Bark doesn’t grasp at this straw, he just heaves a sigh and says the lifestyle wouldn’t suit Lucy. I wish they’d fought back a little harder. Star-crossed lovers are a common trope, but usually they show how important their love is by standing up for it. The fact that they don’t actually leaves McCarey with a harder sell, since he can’t win audience sympathy out of the excitement of watching the parents battling for something they want.
Keith: I think on the pushing back front, you have to consider their past and their abilities. Lucy has never worked, and I suspect neither she nor Bark would think it proper. Bark has always worked, and keeps trying to, but he’s really at the end of his ability to earn a living. These are people whose battles are behind them, and I think you have to take that as a given. They should be able to live out their golden years together, and part of what makes the film effective to me is that it shows their present circumstance will rob them of a lot of love and happiness. They’ve lost a lot already. Why should they have to lose that?
Tasha: It’s particularly striking how everyone in this movie can appreciate and admire the senior couple except their kids: Even the annoyed house full of people at the interrupted bridge lesson are moved by listening to the two old lovebirds talking on the phone. When they go to the hotel, everyone from the coat-check girl to the bartender enjoys their presence. The bandleader notices them and plays music aimed at them; the manager comps their food and drinks and spends personal time with them. All the world loves a lover, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, but I can’t recall another movie that’s this based around the world admiring a couple. Can you, or is this as unusual as it seems to me?
Keith: I think it says something about how family binds us together, but also distorts the way we see things. It’s easier for almost anyone else to appreciate parents as people than it is for their kids, whose perceptions are skewed by everything from everyday annoyances to decades-old complaints. (Ozu picked up on that thread in Tokyo Story, giving Setsuko Hara’s character a respect and affection for the aged parents that’s never evident in any of their children.) If the film has a didactic purpose beyond supporting the Social Security Act—which never gets mentioned, but would have leapt to the minds of contemporary audiences—it’s to ask viewers to try to see their parents in a different light, in this case as two people who still love and need each other many years into their relationship. It maybe gets exaggerated by the way they seem to delight everyone they encounter during their five hours in New York City, but they are a pretty charming couple.
Tasha: We’ve been ending these by asking about the takeaway of your film recommendation, what people can learn about love from watching it. But I think you beat me to the punch on this one, if it’s essentially about learning to appreciate parents as people, and see their relationship to each other as something outside their parental identities. So I’ll ask something else instead: We’re still constantly seeing politicians make runs on Social Security, largely as a grandstanding technique. Do they all need to sit down and watch this film? Do you think it plays well today as political propaganda, as well as a timeless love story?
Keith: Sadly, yes. I may be too optimistic, but it seems like Social Security is now too beloved an institution to be eliminated entirely. Still, there are constant attempts to chip away at it, along with Medicare and Medicaid. Watching this film made me disappointed that nobody has attempted a film that makes as effective an argument for the Affordable Care Act, and makes me much more appreciative that this film got made and released by a major studio. We think in stories, not statistics, and part of what makes Make Way For Tomorrow work so well is that it never forgets this.
Previously recommended this week:
—Scott Tobias on Modern Romance
—Genevieve Koski on The Americanization Of Emily