May 19, 2015
In 1936 Leo McCarey drank some expired milk. It was part of an ill-advised publicity stunt that had the crew of the Harold Lloyd comedy The Milky Way (1936) imbibe daily amounts of dairy. One of those fateful sips incapacitated McCarey with undulant fever, after which he went to Palm Springs to get healthy. As part of his unique recovery process he visited a casino, which is where he met playwright Viña Delmar, who would go on to write the screenplays for both Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) and The Awful Truth (1937). So we have food poisoning to thank for two of McCarey’s, and thus Hollywood’s, greatest films. They are both acutely observed movies about marriage that deal with the sacrifices required to maintain that union, with Make Way taking a tragic viewpoint from that of old age, and Awful Truth a comic one from youth. It was the latter, of course, with its joyous happy ending, that won the Oscar and the accolades, while the devastating Make Way was also a critical favorite but a popular failure. But when a film is released on the Criterion Collection, it can no longer be called under-appreciated. Make Way For Tomorrow was released earlier this month on Blu-ray from Criterion, in a crisp transfer that faithfully renders the thick grain of William C. Mellor’s naturalistic photography.
Make Way for Tomorrow was a very personal project for McCarey. While recovering from the milk-induced fever, his father passed away, and he was too ill to attend the funeral. McCarey told Peter Bogdanovich he got the idea for the film because, “I had just lost my father and we were real good friends; I admired him so much.” He settled on the Josephine Lawrence novel Years Are so Long (’34) as the basis of the story, which contained the basic outline of a group of siblings struggling to take care of their aged parents. While in Palm Springs, McCarey recalled, he went to a gambling joint, and:
there I saw a most attractive girl; I tried to start a conversation with her, and she snubbed me. Now, my wife had given me this very good Cosmopolitan story to read: it was about old folks, and because I’d just lost my father, my wife had said to read it. It was by a gal called Viña Delmar, and I called the studio and told them I’d like an appointment with her for an interview; they called back and said she’s in Palm Springs. And I said, ‘Well, run her down in Palm Springs — that’s where I am.’ So another exchange of phone calls and they said she’d be over to my hotel at such and such at time. The desk announced that “Miss Delmar is here” to see me, and you can imagine both our surprise when it turned out to be the girl I’d tried to get to know at the gambling place.
They “found a mutual wavelength” and worked together on the screenplay. Their meet-cute sounds like something out of a McCarey screwball comedy, but whatever motivated their collaboration it created uniquely complicated characters – all of them have mixed, believable motivations. The children are selfish as all children are selfish, and the parents are invasive, judgmental and crotchety. The story concerns Barkley (Victor Moore) and Lucy Cooper (Beulah Bondi), a kind-hearted, if absent-minded, old married couple whose house is slated to repossessed by the bank. They gather their five children in the hopes of coming to a long-term solution. But instead the parents are separated and passed from child-to-child like a game of filial hot potato. Lucy is ensconced with her son George (Thomas Mitchell), his wife Anita (Fay Bainter) and their daughter Rhoda (Barbara Read). A perennial fourth wheel, she ambles into Anita’s bridge lessons and interrupts Rhoda’s dates. She feels unwanted, while her son feels under siege.
Barkley is living with his daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon) and her family. Cora is an overworked housewife who grows to resent the added burden of her father’s presence, treating him more like a tenant than a personal guest. There are idle plans to reunite Bark and Lucy, but the children can never come to an agreement, and the film ends with one final separation, but not before a dreamlike revivification of their love, a sequence of miraculous power that affirms their bond just before it is severed for good.
McCarey had little support at Paramount to film such a grim tale. He could only make the picture by tearing up his contract and working at a flat rate. Publicity was hard to come by because, according to a 1936 New York Times article, “the 250 correspondents and fan-magazine writers…shunned the sets during filming” due to a lack of star power. Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore didn’t move tabloids, but they give remarkable performances of a couple that live through and for each other. McCarey was a master of reaction shots since the slapstick days, from Charley Chase through Laurel & Hardy, and he could use the same technique for drama. Bondi and Moore’s looks are not deadpan reactions at a world collapsing around them, like Chase, but ones that build a life, moment to moment.
Then there were poorly received test screenings. Again in the Times:
When the picture was completed it was taken 500 miles to Oakland for a sneak preview. There McCarey found he had been too faithful, that he had invested his story with too much reality. He had presented the problems without a suggestion of veneer and the audience resented it. “The children of the film reacted to situations just as the majority of children react, but the public isn’t ready for an excess of honesty yet.
He reshot entire scenes and “lightened the whole materially.” It is hard to conceive that Make Way for Tomorrow could be any more honest than it is now, but there is one scene of the children admitting their guilt that could be a sop to the masses. As their parents are taking one last cab ride together before their separation, the film awkwardly cuts to a nondescript living room, where daughter Nellie says, “If we don’t go to the station they’ll think we’re terrible.” George responds, “Aren’t we?”
Before Bark catches a train to California for a rest cure recommended by his doctor, and Lucy moves into a separate old folk’s home, they meet for one last time in New York City, where they retrace their honeymoon steps from decades before. The city opens up to them as if in a dream, as they are given a ride from a car salesman, free drinks from the hotel manager, and a waltz from the conductor. They drink, get a little tipsy, and are merry. Lucy recites an old anonymous poem about marriage, “A Man and a Maid” that closes: “My dear, she said/the die is cast/the vows have been spoken/the rice has been thrown/into the future we will travel alone/With you, said the maid/I am not afraid.” Bark and Lucy use art and drink to delay reality, the excess of reality that so turned off viewers. But it seeps in anyway. Bark gets on a train, Lucy waves goodbye, with nothing left to sustain them but the memory of a transcendent love. The question is whether that is enough.