Thursday, May 03, 2012

75 years old and still dancing - on Leo McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow

In the 2003 film Baghban, there’s a scene where Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini – playing an aging couple mistreated by their children – find themselves outside a car showroom. An oily salesman (Gajendra Chauhan, who was Dharmaraj Yudhisthira in another lifetime) practically forces the protesting duo into test-driving a fancy car, and then gets abusive and even violent when it turns out they don’t have the money to buy it. This pat, emotionally manipulative scene provides a pretext for good son Salman Khan to show up and lay some of the old dhishum-dhishum across the sales guy’s noggin, as Damon Runyon might have put it – viewer catharsis is easily achieved.

Now flashback to six-and-a-half decades earlier, and a similar scene in Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow – also about an old couple on the verge of being abandoned, or at least separated. Barkley (Victor Moore) and Lucy (the magnificent Beulah Bondi) are still deeply in love, and spending what will likely be their last few hours together – the result of circumstances that make it difficult for any of their children to take them both in. A car salesman sees them through a window, figures they look the “type” to make an impulse purchase, and takes them on a joy-ride, listening with amusement to their reminiscences. But when he discovers that they aren’t potential customers, he tips his hat and puts them at ease – he just wanted to show off his new car, he says. Having dropped them at the hotel where they had spent their honeymoon 50 years earlier, he leaves.

Comparisons can be misleading, and you might argue that the Make Way for Tomorrow scene is idealistic in its own way. (A separate argument might be that the film’s superb final half-hour isn’t meant to be realistic anyway – it’s more like the realisation of a dream where two helpless, dependent people reclaim themselves and enter a kinder world.) However, the contrast in the two car scenes does clarify the very different methods of the films. Baghban wants to make it as easy as possible for the viewer, clearly delineating the people we should root against (evil children, evil salesman, etc). All that’s missing from many of its scenes is a subtitle telling us how we are supposed to respond. But the Make Way for Tomorrow worldview can’t accommodate clean divisions: it opens with the revelation that Barkley and Lucy (who can be lovable, vulnerable and exasperating all at once) are partly to blame for their predicament – they put their children in a tight spot by waiting until the last possible moment to drop the bombshell that their house has been taken over by the bank (this is the Depression Era).

What follows as the old couple try out various staying arrangements, occasionally making a nuisance of themselves, is a morally complex story about the generation gap – one that is more concerned with giving viewers (of all ages) shudders of recognition than in demanding judgement. As a pre-credit title puts it, “There is no magic that will draw together in perfect understanding the aged and the young. There is a canyon between us.” (I thought the use of “us” as opposed to “them” was significant; it’s as if the film is placing itself and its viewers right in the spectrum of human experience rather than watching from a safe distance.)

None of this should be surprising if you’re familiar with Leo McCarey’s work. He was one of a band of directors – among them Ernst Lubitsch, Yasujiro Ozu, Krzysztof Kieslowski and Satyajit Ray – whose films are remarkably free of villainous “types”; people whose wicked actions set a plot in motion, giving us emotional cues and allowing us to feel that unfathomable injustices could be explained and dealt with; that by surgically removing those who were responsible for bad things, we could make the world a better place. And Make Way for Tomorrow is one of his most mature works. Though made years before Hollywood began its full-fledged dalliance with gritty “psychological realism”, it contains scenes that anticipate the age of Method actors. It was rare, for instance, to see half-completed sentences and unexpected pauses in speech in 1930s Hollywood movies, but watch the early scene where the couple’s eldest son George (the always-wonderful Thomas Mitchell) enters the family home and says hello to his parents and siblings in turn. Addressing a sister whom he hasn’t seen in a long while, he tries to say the right thing – “I don’t know, we plan and plan...” but then trails off abruptly, almost as if realising how hollow his words are; everyone is leading their own lives, might as well fess up to it instead of pretending that tremendous efforts are being made.

Something similar is achieved in the exchange where George tries to build up the courage to tell his mother that he needs to send her to an old persons’ home, but she anticipates his discomfort and takes the responsibility on herself. On view here is a perfectly performed duet of little gestures and glances, where first we see that she knows, and then realise that he knows that she knows. There are other wonderful little moments, a few of which teeter on the brink of being too cute. But the final passage, with Bark and Lucy in the city together, is among the most graceful and uncompromising I’ve seen in any film – it manages somehow to have the texture of both a personal fantasy and a social documentary.

All this adds up to an emotionally demanding movie, and little wonder that McCarey (who directed the wonderful comedy The Awful Truth that same year) was under studio pressure to make it more upbeat. But he resisted and Make Way for Tomorrow was a commercial dud, with some reviewers of the time even warning viewers to stay away because it was so sad! (Of course, the promotional machinery chugged on unhindered: one gobsmacking theatrical poster shows a scene that isn’t even in the film – Bark dancing gaily with a young woman, presumably his granddaughter.)

When one thinks of Hollywood movies of the 30s, 40s and 50s that broke away from studio executives’ notions of what was good for the box-office, one usually thinks of dark, deeply cynical visions of human nature. (Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole comes to mind.) Make Way for Tomorrow can be seen as a pessimistic film too, but it arrives at its pessimism from an almost opposite direction – by taking a positive view of most people and suggesting that personal circumstances (along with unbridgeable gulfs in personalities and needs) are what cause much of the world’s misery.

At one point, Lucy’s granddaughter Rhoda tells her to stop dreaming and face facts. “When you’re 17 and the world is beautiful,” Lucy replies, “facing facts is just slick fun, like 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 went on pretending?” Well, McCarey's film itself turns 75 this month (it was released in May 1937) but there is little pretence in its treatment of the old and the young. And it only occasionally shows its age.


  1. Which publications are you writing for nowadays, Jai?

    Ever since the column on SG stopped, you've been writing a lot of personal posts about films, just like the good, old days. :)

  2. Anon: oh well, I'm sure part of this post will go into one of my official columns sometime - the Vicky Donor and A Separation ones did. Am writing for lots of places - GQ, Business Standard, Caravan, Hindustan Times, a couple of others. And a couple of longish essays I'm doing for one-off publications.

    As for film writing, at any given point I have unstructured notes on a hundred different movies (or ideas around movies). The challenge - an exhausting one - is to shape any of them into a coherent piece!

  3. Dharamraj Yudhistra in another lifetime. Hilarious! Along with viewer catharsis some snorting and chortling are served as dessert.

  4. Up until recently I was never a big fan of Criterion movies. But after I watched Ray's The Music Room and a few others (Edward Yang's Yi Yi, Alexander Mcendrick's Sweet Smell of Success, Kieslowski's Red) I realise how much fun they can be. I think they may be doing Ray's Agantuk in the future.

  5. Up until recently I was never a big fan of Criterion movies.

    karrvakarela: well, there really is no such thing as "Criterion movies". The films released by them on DVD cover a huge range of films in different genres and styles from around the world. Glad you're enjoying them though!

    Don't think I mentioned it in the post, but Tokyo Story (which is probably the best known of the films about neglected old people) was influenced by Make Way for Tomorrow.

  6. I liked Make Way for Tomorrow even more than the Tokyo Story

    Some of the scenes are among the best I've seen on film. Especially the bridge class scene where Bondi unwittingly becomes a likeable nuisance of sorts and an embarrassment to everyone in the room. In a Bollywood movie, a similar scene will be accompanied by a cruel retort by the daughter in law. No such vulgarity here.

    It is a remarkable movie that doesn't take sides. It empathises as much with the kids as it does with the old couple. There's also a scene at the end where a roadside advertisement billboard admonishes the old couple for not having saved enough while young.

    That would be a very unfashionable thing to do in today's America with its unwieldy social security and welfare programs which hadn't taken root in 1937.

    Today if an old American couple is struggling to make two ends meet, it isn't their fault. It isn't the children's fault. It is the government's fault!!!!!

    The expansion of government over the past 70 years has contributed greatly to the decline of the family and civic culture in the United States.

  7. An interesting interview which discusses the massive cultural shifts in western culture between 1960 and today that has resulted in the stagnation of White American underclass and loss of civic culture and social capital in American cities.

    Viewers who find Make Way for Tomorrow strangely remote from today's America ought to watch this video.

  8. I liked Make Way for Tomorrow even more than Tokyo Story

    shrikanth: I find it difficult to choose between them (partly because Setsuko Hara's face is high on my list of favourite things to watch onscreen) but I think I'd give the edge to MWFT too.

    What I liked more about the bridge-class scene though was the indulgent, interested look on the face of the woman sitting nearby as Lucy speaks to Bark on the phone, and the more ambivalent glances exchanged by the people on the other tables. Nice panoply of reactions there, including embarrassed sympathy and mild irritation.

  9. I was wondering whether you've had the chance to see the Malayalam language "Oru cheru punchiri." I thought it handled the subject of aging and the accompanying creaky noises and embarassment beautifully. There was none of the daughter-in-law drama and mod grand-children playing video games 24/7 sequences. It was very sensitive and very forgiving.

  10. soniajoseph: no, haven't seen it - will look out for a print that has subtitles. Thanks.

  11. I could only find a DVDrip Copy on YouTube. It has subtitles but there seems to be a lag and lapses in translation. The Malayalam film industry completely neglects DVD distribution and film restoration. And this being "parallel" cinema directed by MT Vasudevan Nair, may disappear altogether in a decade or so. I'm sorry if I come off as a south movie evangelist. Great blog btw!

  12. Oh, interesting to know the film was by MT Vasudevan Nair. I'm familiar with his book Randamoozham, though only through Prem Panicker's excellent English transcreation (I wrote about it here).

  13. Yes, I think Prem linked to your blog on his forward. I can't read Malayalam having grown up in KSA. Bhimsen was a godsend.
    MTV is a genius. I am a big fan of almost everything he does: novels, screenplay and films. His forte is definitely screenplay but "Oru cheru punchiri" is a great place to start sampling.
    And besides, it stars Odduvil Unnikrishnan. His profile on wiki does him no justice, btw.