In which we learn to invest heavily in our 401(k) s.
Is there anything even remotely as depressing as the prospect of growing old? Perhaps the prospect of not growing old at all, although a good many would consider that preferable to the various indignities of decrepitude which life has in store for us (which begin, oddly enough, at around 30). And that's what's in store for the luckiest of us. Which brings me to today's film: 1937's Make Way for Tomorrow. The feel-good film of the depression years.
In one sense, Make Way is very much of the great depression era (which makes it feel, perhaps unsurprisingly, current). It is the utterly straightforward story of an elderly couple whose home is taken by the bank. Barkley retired only a few years earlier and is unable to find new work because of his age. Though still modestly capable, and in generally good health, he's old and tired, and it's easy to understand how he could be turned over for younger dudes in the employment line. In an era prior to social security (or an era after the security of pension), there's very little for him and his wife to do but to prevail on their grown children. Neither Barkley, nor his wife Lucy has any desire to burden anybody, but there it is. When the assembled family wants to know why no one had heard of the bank taking the house in the months before, when there might've been time to take action, there's no good answer except the one that well-intentioned old people are inclined to give: they'd hoped that something-or-other would turn up, and that no one would ever need to know. It's that type of deeply frustrating and entirely understandable thing that old people do.
It's at this point that decades of movie-going expectations lead you to figure that the rotten-as-hell kids are going to toss aside their parents like old garbage, and presumably learn some valuable lessons about the value of respecting your elders or some such thing. We're not let off the hook nearly so easily. See, if the kids were big insensitive jerks, there'd be no reason to think too hard about any of the proceedings. It's pretty rare, actually, rarer than I realized before sitting down to think a bit about this movie: rare to not get the easy out that comes with thinking that particular characters are being complete assholes. A movie's gotta have a villain, right? If the children were truly horrible people, we'd get to leave figuring: "hey, we could never be that bad..."
Some of Lucy and Barkley's grown children have kids of their own, and they're scattered around the country. None has much room in their homes or in their lives for a couple of seventy-year-olds. The kids gripe and groan a bit, they jockey and argue over who is contributing enough. Finally it's decided that the parents will split up, though they swore that they never would. It's only temporary, they all say...mom will live with one family, and dad with another until better arrangements can be made. And, at first, everyone pretty much believes it. In fact, it all seems very reasonable, given the circumstances. I've seen the jockeying happen in my own family, with good and bad outcomes, but always with an individual, and never the added complication of a couple. Certainly any family of modest means would struggle with two extra people to house.
From that decision to split up the parents, things proceed with their own logic and on their own course. We see bits and bobs of the everyday lives of Lucy and Barkley in their separate homes. Barkley hangs out in the corner store, chatting with the accommodating owner. Lucy tries to ingratiate herself into the world of her son's family: annoying her granddaughter by trying to socialize with her young friends. Sitting in on her daughter-in-laws bridge party. And Lucy can be damned annoying with her old-timey ways. It's not hard to see why the family would struggle with her presence. Everyone's aware of their responsibilities, and there's plenty of affection, but the truth of Lucy and Barkley's situation only becomes clearer and less escapable all the time, even as Lucy indulges in hopes that she realizes are silly. After lives of hard work and family, they've become, primarily, burdens. This was the fate that my own grandmother feared above all others, and probably would be happy not to have lived to face. The movie is fearful from both ends: I'm not sure if the prospect of growing old and burdensome is sadder than the idea of being the one responsible for making someone feel that way. Both fates seem equally possible, in spite of worlds of good intentions.
This all sounds terribly dismal, I realize, and it's certainly not a chipper fantasy. There's not a single note of the film that feels false. It's among the truest films that I've ever seen: the ending is neither unsparingly bleak nor unbelievably happy. In spite of the film being quickly forgotten after its initial release, prolific director Leo McCarey considered it his masterpiece. If the truth-angle isn't quite enough to sell the film, it has moments of extraordinary beauty in it's depiction of everyday life. The entire concluding sequence involving a brief reunion for our lead characters is absolutely magical. More so because we almost never see old people given lead roles in movies. That the characters should also be poor makes it seem almost otherworldly to follow them around for a time.
It seems vaguely criminal to have come this far without mentioning the performances. A character piece like this sinks or swims on the basis of the acting, and it's all pretty darned great. Silent-film vet Victor Moore is a quietly likeable presence as Pa Cooper...all awkward nerves as a man who no longer has any confidence that the world will take him seriously. Beulah Bondi's Lucy, though, positively walks away with the movie. Bond was only around 40 at the time the film was made, playing a woman of about 70. It seems almost spoilery to mention that, since it's impossible to tell during the movie itself. The makeup and performance are such that I never for a moment questioned that this was a woman of some years. It was only when I looked her up later that I realized that she was working until the late 70s. Try to forget about her actual age when you watch Make Way. It's not a gimmicky performance that she gives...it's a pitch-perfect portrayal of an old-lady trying to fit in in a world that no longer has a whole heckuva lot of time or interest in her. It's a lovely, fun, go-for-it performance full of subtlety. Bondi's performance stands out particularly for the time. It was naturalistic in a time before naturalism was the common style in film acting. I wonder if 1930s audiences knew what to make of her.
Make Way for Tomorrow has seen a bit of a revival lately, getting a bit of the reception that it never had initially. It's been a popular feature of the Telluride Film Festival several times now, and there's a recent, and typically great Criterion Collection DVD release. It also pops up on TCM now and again, which is where I caught it. If you're not just the slightest bit more kindly disposed toward the old people in your life (even the obnoxious ones) after this film, then your heart is mercifully harder than mine. And, for God's sake, think about those retirement savings.