Thursday, February 25, 2010

It's Like Shakespeare, But With Victor Moore

I don't have much to say about the new DVD of Make Way For Tomorrow that I haven't said many times before: I might have preferred more special features or a non-windowboxed transfer, but compared to the version I had (a third-generation copy taped off AMC back when they showed good movies), having this version is absolute paradise.

One thing I hadn't really noticed before is that Leo McCarey seems to be setting up some King Lear parallels in the opening scene, where Bark (Victor Moore) gathers his children together and informs them that the bank is taking his house. The fact that he's constantly sitting in his chair, with Lucy (Beulah Bondi) standing next to him and his children seated in front of him, gives a sort of "a man's home is his castle" feel to the scene. And his decision to wait until the last minute to tell his kids, leaving them with no time to chip in and buy or rent them a new place, is suggestive of Lear putting his children on the spot. He doesn't want them to pool their resources and help him; he wants one of them to prove he or she is a better child than the others.

It's one of the reasons that the movie doesn't just straightforwardly celebrate the good old people against their evil offspring. There is some of that, yes; McCarey said at the time that he wanted to make a movie that was not only about the tragedy of old age, but "old age's gifts of serenity, tolerance and humor." But he doesn't let the parents off the hook, right from the start: Bark is almost unbearably selfish at times, and his behavior in the opening scene suggests a certain enjoyment of the situation and an indifference to how it's affecting Lucy or his kids. And this test of his children's love backfires on him as surely as it did on Lear. That's one of the elements of the movie that makes it (as I've said) one of the few "Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?" type of projects that turned out as great as the director thought it was going to be.

There's also a discussion going on in Dave Kehr's comment section about the social/political context of the film. It's clearly about the suffering that old people endure when it falls entirely to their children to take care of them in their old age. On the other hand, even though McCarey wasn't as conservative in the '30s as he later became, it's doubtful that he would have wanted this movie to be seen as some kind of New Deal endorsement. If anything, the "kindness of strangers" section of the movie, where Bark and Lucy receive better treatment from strangers than they ever did from their children, can be seen as a sort of non-governmental alternative to government action, where the solution (as in Dickens) is for individuals to step up and help even people they don't know.

But of course, since there's no happy ending, McCarey doesn't really present that as a solution per se. I suppose you could argue that McCarey is trying too hard not to propose that government intervention is the answer. But in any case, part of the power of the movie comes from the fact that it offers no clear solution. That doesn't mean it's not a political movie (not advocating a particular political solution doesn't make a story non-political). It does mean it can be frustrating for someone trying to read it didactically.


Anonymous said...

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in case you forgot...
c'mon man...what's yer prob? (to paraphrase the good doctor)

EJK said...


Great stuff, as always. (Really looking forward to picking up the new DVD.)

But what exactly is a ""Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?" type of project? Is that where a couple of talentless huckster-brothers steal from their betters and waste $30,000,000 on what would be better used as one-trillion celluloid guitar-picks? Or is that a project communally-organized, financed, shot, and made with something more in mind than a dinner at Sona? Do you have a problem with the ideas behind the FTP?

Jaime J. Weinman said...

But what exactly is a ""Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?" type of project?

I'm referring to the movie Joel McCrea wants to make in Sullivan's Travels. "Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?" has become my shorthand for any socially-conscious movie project that a director of light entertainment wants to undertake.

Make Way For Tomorrow, a social-problem drama made by a guy who had done almost nothing but comedy up to that point, fits the Sullivan pattern perfectly, except that it was good.