Tuesday, February 17, 2009

McCarey Masterpiece Mayhem!



This has been rumored for a while, but a Criterion representative has confirmed that the company has licensed Leo McCarey's Make Way For Tomorrow and they'll be releasing it on DVD, though they don't have a release date set yet.

You know how I was saying that directors' serious dream projects almost always turn out to be disappointing? Well, Make Way For Tomorrow kind of proves me wrong. That is a classic "Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?" project. McCarey was one of the world's best directors of light comedy, with masterpieces like Duck Soup and Ruggles of Red Gap (where is that on DVD?) to his credit. He fought Paramount to get the go-ahead for a downbeat drama with no stars that would highlight a social problem (the treatment of the elderly). When he won the Oscar for directing his other movie of 1937, the equally great light comedy The Awful Truth,, he said that the Academy had given him the award for the wrong picture. He was a John L. Sullivan and this was his "Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?" -- but it was every bit as great as he believed it was. I know that Tokyo Story, which it influenced, is the more famous movie, but this one hits me much harder, and I think it's the greater film.

What sets it apart is that instead of toning down his usual style the way directors usually do when they approach serious subjects (Spielberg, for example, or Lubitsch when he made the unbearable The Man I Killed), McCarey ws completely himself in the making of Make Way For Tomorrow. The improvisation, broad sense of humor and sentimentality are all there as usual, they're just applied to a story that can't have a happy ending.
And it always puts story and character before the message, something that can't be said, for, say, In Cold Blood (I just bring it up because I saw it on TCM yesterday, and was reminded again that it's one of the last of the well-made, well-meaning, slightly dead Hollywood movie that wants to teach us Important Lessons). The ending is heartbreaking because we've grown to know these two people as people, which includes showing their flaws.

Usually when a Hollywood director wants to make a downbeat movie on a very serious subject, he puts the subject before anything else; it's like those guys in The Player whose entire concept for a "serious" movie is based on the proposition that there should be no stars and an unhappy ending that shows the evils of capital punishment. (It's part of my backlash against The Player that I'm now convinced that the movie the studio finally ends up making -- where Bruce Willis saves Julia Roberts from being executed -- would be much better than what was originally pitched.) In Mark Harris's book "Pictures at a Revolution," about the movies of 1967, he quotes Stanley Kramer as saying that Sidney Poitier's character in Guess Who's Coming To Dinner had to be inhumanly perfect, otherwise the message of the movie would not have worked, because there would have been some legitimate excuse for the parents to be against him. McCarey doesn't work that way; he makes the Victor Moore character a man who's tough to live with and put up with, who shouts insults at and eventually bites his doctor. McCarey gives the children legitimate reasons for not wanting to take both of their parents in. And the movie's emotional impact is greater because there was no easy way out for anybody.

8 comments:

Griff said...

Jaime, while I agree with most everything that you say about McCarey and MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (I do think that TOKYO STORY is as least as great), I am curious about your remark about THE PLAYER.

When you say, "I'm now convinced that the movie the studio finally ends up making -- where Bruce Willis saves Julia Roberts from being executed -- would be much better than what was originally pitched," Well, yeah, probably. I was never convinced that the original pitch was supposed to be any good to begin with -- I believe the main reason Griffin buys the pitch from that goofy team is to saddle Larry Levy with a lousy project at the studio and possibly torpedo his rise. When Griffin is suddenly catapulted to studio head, they go ahead and make the best of it -- casting big stars, and yes, ultimately changing the ending. But I never got the sense that the original idea for the movie was actually at all inspired, or that we were supposed to think so. [Though poor, clueless Bonnie thought so.]

Jaime J. Weinman said...

I never got the sense that the original idea for the movie was actually at all inspired, or that we were supposed to think so.

I don't either -- now. But when I saw the movie at the time, I actually did think that that subplot was illustrating the evils of Hollywood and the way they bastardize movies (especially since the movie has an executive literally kill a writer, bringing to life what every screenwriter thinks executives are trying to do to him anyway).

Now I see the ironic side of that subplot, or at least the way Altman handles it (I still get the feeling that the writer, Michael Tolkin, took the writers-vs-suits aspect of the story a little more seriously). So no, I don't think Altman thinks that original pitch would have been any good, but I missed that at the time.

Griff said...

The thing about Kramer's comments about GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER is that they reflect more the thinking of a movie producer than of a movie director.

Kramer is plainly saying that the Poitier character must be absolutely beyond reproach, not simply so that Tracy and Hepburn could have no reasonable objection to his marrying their daughter other than his race, but also so that the audience can also clearly see this. Producer Kramer wanted to make sure that no one -- man, woman or child -- who went to see the picture could fail to grasp this point.

I can't speak to the merits of the film, which, of course, was an enormous hit in its day. There are some WWII propaganda films subtler than this thing. [I always do pay attention when Tracy starts his final speech, though.] Perhaps Kramer as a director couldn't really do much better with the material; he might not have been able to give it more depth or handle deeper characterizations.

Then again, maybe he was really serving his producer: making an obvious message movie, its points clearly outlined, underlined, in bold. I can't praise it, really. It is what it is. But people did talk about this film back in 1967 -- it seemed to mean something back in the day.

Kevin Deany said...

When I worked in the video section of Musicland, customers would come in and get their titles mixed up.

My favorite was the guy who came in and wanted to pick up that movie where Sidney Poitier marries the white girl. He said, "It's called I Think I'm Going Out To Dinner Now."

Anonymous said...

The idiotic remake should have been called "I Think I'm Going Out to Dinner Now."

Slowjack said...

"Make Way For Tomorrow" is a wonderful film. It emotionally floored me--not just in the unfeeling practicality of the children, but also the unexpected sweetness, like the hotel manager who treats the couple to dinner.

It's hard to guess what I would have thought of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" if I grew up during an earlier age, but seen today, it's simply a bad film. Absent the message there's no reason to watch it.

While others have objected to the perfection of Poitier's character--which of course stacks the deck--I object to film's whole structure. One problem is that most parents would be alarmed if their daughter wanted to marry a man she had just met, especially when she is still quite young and he is not. No one in the film addresses this and it makes flat characters even flatter.

It also doesn't help how callously the film dismisses the possible objections of Poitier's parents. They are almost invisible and apparently expected to follow the lead of the white folks even here.

Really, a 3-second T.V. spot of Spencer Tracy looking directly at the viewer and saying, "I don't have a problem with interracial marriage" would have been a better use of cinematic resources.

Jim said...

Make Way For Tomorrow was released last year in France under the title "Place aux Jeunes" Amazon France still has it in stock http://www.amazon.fr/Place-aux-jeunes-Victor-Moore/dp/B00186VRWK/

Jonathan said...

Make Way for Tomorrow entered and exited American movie theaters in May, 1937 without much attention at all, and has retained that secretive status to this day. It comes under the class of Movies That No One Has Seen But Me, Or So It Seems. It's hard to love it so much and have it unknown. That is, up until now.

Paramount allowed Leo McCarey to make this motion picture; (he waived his salary to be able to) but they refused to promote it due to its subject matter. Then, released from his contract due to its commercial failure, McCarey went on to score a hit for Columbia and a Best Director Academy award for himself with "The Awful Truth."

There is a wonderful moment from the 1937 Academy Awards Ceremony; preserved on film and found in the twentieth minute of the "Frank Capra Jr. Remembers," accompanying special feature for the dvd, "You Can't Take It With You," where Capra Sr. presents the Oscar to McCarey, shakes his hand, and then reaching back, grabs the statuette by the torso and with a good-natured, smiling expression, attempts to tug-of-war it away from Mr. McCarey. What Mr. Capra seems to jokingly be trying to say is that he thinks he should have won the award for his film, "Lost Horizon." The ten-second clip ends before we see who wins the match, but we know that it is indeed McCarey, as we're certain Mr. Capra would surrender it gracefully. And besides, Mr. McCarey has a hold of Oscar by the base.

Then as he steps up to the podium to speak about his quirky 1937 comedy, Mr. McCarey said to all those in attendance, "Thanks, but you gave this to me for the wrong picture."

McCarey's drama gave his two lead players more armfuls of the sweetest embraces, both physical and literary, than any actor/actress teaming in my long term memory. Victor Moore was splendid as the funny and warm old gentleman who had failed to prepare for his retirement, but it was always Beulah Bondi: surely the most versatile character actress on all levels the movies have known, that tugged at my heart during any number of her very stirring scenes. Her darling Lucy Cooper could be both a warm granny and a meddling, cantankerous old girl; but her performance of this 70-something woman was so real, it was staggering in its depth. All the more so when you realize that she was only in her mid-40's at the time. It wasn't the fine make-up job that made Ma Cooper so real, it was Miss Bondi's superb crafting of this marvelous character.

-Author John Springer wrote in his book, "They Had Faces Then," (Citadel Press, 1974) that, "Academy Awards ceased to have their full value the year she did not get a nomination for Make Way for Tomorrow. That role alone--if she had done none of her others--would make her a screen immortal."
-Jean Renoir famously said that Leo McCarey understood people better than anyone else in Hollywood.
-Orson Welles said that this movie would make a stone cry.

After waiting for decades for this picture to be released on VHS, how wonderful that Criterion has granted MWFT its deserved restoration. Based on the menu of special features and judging by the devoted preservation Criterion has given to other motion picture treasures, I am confidently anticipating a tender and tearful reunion with the Coopers. Though it may not be as grand as other masterpieces such as Gone With The Wind, Citizen Kane or Casablanca, it inhabits my heart more dearly than those or most other film ever will.
And for that, I/we have Mr. Leo McCarey and our beloved Miss Beulah Bondi to thank.