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Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

CRUMBLIES…  5 crumblies

Wow. Here’s a film to chill my generation to the bone. Old Jack is lucky, of course, I got to be with Mrs Jack until she left the planet. Then Steve shimmied me into this old home of top quality TV choices and decrepitude. I can feel lonely, but I don’t feel cast out and rejected by my nearest and dearest. And – my saving grace, perhaps – I had absolutely no intention of living with my kids. Or their kids. Shudder.

The 1930s were different. Families, it seems, had to huddle back together as the Depression ripped up their jobs, hopes and mortgages. Director Leo McCarey – a hugely successful artist who paired Laurel with Hardy and gave the Marx Brothers some of their finest moments – took to drama to show how fragile those damaged families could be. And how awful it was for those in their 70s and 80s, with little choice but to Make Way for Tomorrow...

So, here’s a film from 1937, telling the story of an old couple with five middle-aged children and a lost home. Beulah Bondi is Lucy Cooper (in an astonishingly effective Grandma performance for someone who had yet to reach fifty). She dearly loves her husband of half a century: Victor Moore as Barkley “Bark” Cooper. But life has been hard. Long-term unemployment and a thick wedge of good-natured denial means foreclosure is on its way. A cheery gathering with most of their children turns bleak as the old couple admit their loss and ask for help.

Imagine that moment. Make Way for Tomorrow balances the clarity of its time (black and white, a bit declamatory, but the story is strong and the actors magnificent), with a cold-eyed view of the situation. And the cold-eye never wavers: the inevitable is played out in steady, stagey beats that left old Jack chilled or tearful by turn. This isn’t It’s A Wonderful Life. Quite the opposite because – even at this distance – it feels unrelentingly true. Don’t ever get old, my friends…

The couple need to move in with their children, but all the offspring bleat that they don’t have the room for two. So the parents separate and go with different children. I couldn’t quite believe this was the story: fifty years of partnership destroyed. Old Lucy goes with son George (the inestimable Thomas Mitchell), his wife Anita (the uptight Fay Bainter) and teenage daughter Rhoda (Barbara Read – here a bit wanton, in real life the wife of three Wills who topped herself in her mid-forties). And then the tensions begin. Lucy gets lonely in the day, then, when a huge (huge) bridge class turns up to be taught by Anita, sits in a rage-inducingly creaky rocking chair, distracts the group with friendly chatter and top-quality anecdotes. Who hasn’t been over 70 and in that situation? She may as well have told war stories. The sharp young things of the 1930s all tut and quietly reject the woman until she inadvertently guilts them. Rhoda, meanwhile, is a bit blunter and pushes her Grandma to face the facts of her new life…

LUCY: “When you’re seventeen and the world’s beautiful, facing facts is just as slick fun as dancing or going to parties, but when you’re seventy…

Well, you don’t care about dancing, you don’t think about parties anymore, and about the only fun you have left is pretending that there ain’t any facts to face.

So would you mind if I just… kind of…went on pretending?”

The similarly let-down Bark Cooper falls ill at his daughter Cora’s. He’s been forced to sleep on the sofa (psychology is everything…), but they get the doctor out having shuffled him into the main bedroom. Elisabeth Risdon gives a borderline nasty performance as the inconvenienced Cora, while Victor Moore and Louis Jean Heydt (as the doctor) have a rather fun character-off.

All these scenes are funny in their way. Grandma being an irritation and not-quite-bonding with the Grand-daughter (who leaves her at the movies for a very obvious assignation) brings a knowing smile. Bark, his doctor, and the comic effrontery of being moved around to save his daughter’s face are a skilfully presented pleasure. But the brutality of the relationships really chilled me. The old were an inconvenience, shunted into corners, beaten down by enforced separation and uncaring kids. Horrible.

It’s beautifully done, mind, but a lacerator of good moods. Cora sorts another move to get rid of Bark (to California, far distant, with another child). Nellie, a daughter, had initially asked for time to persuade her husband to take on both parents, but drops the ball. Son Robert is a self-acknowledged good-for-nothing, so no hope there. Then the day arrives that Bark is off to California. The couple get a final few hours together…

I was in tears. The TV room was in tears. Nurse Stabby-Fingers and her heartless young assistant Nurse Smartphone-Stuck-to-Her-Fucking-Nose were in tears. For the Coopers, so betrayed by their useless off-spring, get to spend the afternoon together.

They have a gorgeous, tender time of it – even going to the Bogart Hotel where they spent their honeymoon way back when. The hotel staff are wonderful: interested in them, laughing at their stories, showing off an old painting of the old lobby and asking for memories. There is a beautiful scene on a dance floor, where Lucy and Bark step out to modern music and the conductor – seeing them ill-at-ease with modern beats – halts the band to play Let Me Call You Sweetheart…I’m in love with you…

Oh God, more tears. You’ll need to be in a robust good mood to watch this film. The last twenty minutes are a resurgence of the old couple’s love, friendship and marriage. The world is kind to them in ways that their children finally – too late – recognise as absent in themselves. They are hiding back at a flat when one recognises that if they don’t get to the station in time to say goodbye, well, their parents will think they’re terrible. Thomas Mitchell sums it up: “Aren’t we?”

Cut to the loving couple at the station. They say a sweet farewell then an earnest, real one to their life together. Wow. Bark gets on the train. Lucy watches, dignified and distraught, and turns away as the tune they danced to get a frenetic last play over The End.

Actually, hang the good mood. You’ll need a pile of blankets, a room full of friends and some whisky. Make Way for Tomorrow – an ice-cold message in its title – is a brutal story of kind, tender people, utterly betrayed by fate and their self-involved kids (looking at you, the ‘busy’ middle-aged). And it just won’t stop. There’s no cheery let-up, no happy angel looking to fix things. Oooooooohhhhh no, just 90 minutes of rejection, unsentimental performances and desolation. And this was made in Hollywood!

Many years later, when actually old, Beulah Bondi ended her career playing Aunt Martha Corinne in The Waltons. The story had moments of leaving an old, well-loved home, but there was a warmth to it that Make Way for Tomorrow doesn’t entertain. If you’ll pardon the fancy, I’m glad for that later performance, because Lucy Cooper had earned at least one moment of warmth and sentiment.

Give it a go if you dare. Make Way for Tomorrow – the film Orson Welles said could make a stone cry.

It’s buyable in the outer recesses of the internet…






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