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Make Way for Tomorrow (DVD Review)

22 Feb, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 2/23/10
$29.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Beulah Bondi, Victor Moore, Fay Bainter, Thomas Mitchell.

In the midst of national financial catastrophe, elderly parents lose their home, and none of their five grown children — for reasons both self-absorbed and not — can find a way to make it right.

Hollywood could film such a story today (not that it ever would, given the perceived need to dump a hundred supernatural melodramas on us a year) and it would seem up to the minute. Yet this country’s definitive movie about the aged (Japan’s Tokyo Story, which it inspired, is its only international rival) was made more than 70 years ago.
Though director Leo McCarey’s career fell off precipitously after the mid-1940s (perennially popular An Affair To Remember was a 1957 exception), he reigned earlier as the improvisational comedy genius who first teamed Laurel with Hardy, guided the Marx Brothers’ to their best picture (Duck Soup) and twice turned Bing Crosby into the movies’ most popular priest. Yet, like many, he considered this warm, occasionally even funny yet uniquely tough tearjerker his best work.

In his acceptance speech, McCarey even chided the Motion Picture Academy for giving him the 1937 directorial Oscar for “the wrong picture,” which was merely The Awful Truth — still among the greatest of all screen comedies and the one that basically “invented” Cary Grant.

But as an admirer of Tomorrow along with fellow directorial kingpins John Ford, Frank Capra and Jean Renoir, Orson Welles knew what the movie was up against when he noted, “It would make a stone cry.”

Audiences, who already knew all too well how dreadful the Depression was, actively stayed away from an uncompromised portrait of brutal truths that time hasn’t softened — beginning with the foreclosure. Dad (Victor Moore) is a bookkeeper who’s been out of work for years. Mom (Beulah Bondi) is the 50-year loving companion he once wangled away from the suitor who became the town banker. As Moore’s character notes in one of the film’s frequent humor-laced asides, “I got his girl, but he got my house.”

The kids are all spread out geographically, and mom must leave what looks like a semi-rural dream home to go live in an alien Manhattan apartment with one of her sons and his wife (Thomas Mitchell and Fay Bainter, who’d both win Oscars before the decade was done).

A chatterbox, she means well but gets in the way, and her hot-to-trot granddaughter doesn’t like sharing a bedroom. Dad, meanwhile, is far enough away that making a long distance phone call means forgoing some other important expenditure — like something that might keep him warm in a snowy climate. He’s stuck living with a daughter of moderate means and battle-ax temperament who doesn’t like the one friend (Jewish) he’s made.

There’s no way an honest movie with this set-up can end happily, and this is an honest movie. But up until a killer finale with, say, one the five greatest capping shots in movie history, the last half-hour is an unmitigated delight sparked by the remarkably synched interplay between co-equal leads (though Moore especially amazes because he almost always played comic buffoons).

The bonus interviews about McCarey with director Peter Bogdanovich and writer Gary Giddins are so good (both on his glory days and career decline due to alcohol and a simplistic embracing of the political right that did him no good) that I’ve already listened to both twice. (So far.)

And the booklet has adoring essays by biographer/historian Tag Gallagher, director Bertrand Tavernier and the recently deceased critic Robin Wood — all of whom, like Bogdanovich and Giddins, are renowned for hitting the critical long ball.

Make Way for Tomorrow is among my all-time favorites, and I’m not alone. Check out reader comments on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb.com) to see how a movie that relatively few people even know can be so beloved by those who’ve had a chance to discover it.

Back when I was a film programmer, a patron came up to me after the screening to shout, “That’s one of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen.” But she was bawling so hard, she could barely get out the words.

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