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D-day, June 6, 1944. John Ford was there. It was the most vivid experience of his life, he said. “There was a tremendous sort of spiral of events all over the world, and it seemed to narrow down to each man in its vortex on Omaha Beach that day . . . In the States, as [Operation] Overlord got under way, the film Going My Way, with Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald, was a smash hit. I had nothing to do with it, but the title was somehow appropriate when I remembered what we were starting in Normandy.”
That anyone in the middle of the greatest armada in history would have been thinking about Leo McCarey's Going My Way may surprise us today. Yet that movie meant a lot to people in the spring of 1944, caught up in worldwide terror and daily death. It had been made in the darkest winter of World War II and, like most McCarey movies, like 1937's Make Way for Tomorrow, was about people changing, awakening, strengthening. Which isn't to say that a McCarey picture is a monologue. His movies try, quite consciously, to have conversations with their audiences. Like a modern work of commedia dell'arte, a McCarey movie plays an audience, conducts people through kaleidoscopes of melodramatic emotions, and unites people with one another. “I love it that people laugh,” McCarey said, “I love it that they cry, I love it that the story is about something, and I want the audience leaving the theater to feel happier than when they came in.” A movie could be a kind of social sacrament to create a community at that moment, there in the theater—at the same time that it would remind us each that we're "going our way" alone.
McCarey's commedia draws us into each character, and in the first half of Make Way for Tomorrow, old Lucy Cooper (Beulah Bondi) is insufferable. Eventually, even her daughter-in-law Anita (Fay Bainter), the most empathetic soul in the movie, cannot help but look at her with hate indistinguishable from sympathy—as do we. This is what McCarey wants: that we share with characters the conflicting emotions that neither they nor we can reconcile.
McCarey makes us complicit, which is what makes Make Way for Tomorrow almost unbearable. Even storekeeper Max Rubens has to look away.
McCarey learned his trade in silent-film comedy—three hundred shorts in ten years: Our Gang, Charley Chase, Laurel and Hardy (whom he teamed). Silent comedy was an extension of vaudeville humor, whose essence was interaction with an audience. This is why vaudeville, like commedia dell'arte, depended on improvisation within an outline. The performer needed to know where he was going but, more important, also had to be able to adjust his driving to the conditions of the road. A problem in silent-film comedy was how to make such adjustments. In cinema's own vaudeville period, one-shot movies, like those by the Lumières, could be run slower or faster, backward or forward, depending on the reactions that day from the audience. By the teens, comics were trying to accomplish the same thing by test screening their pictures and tinkering with them in between. By the twenties, Charlie Chaplin was notorious for filming every gag a million times, until he found his solution. Body language was everything. Actors were models. McCarey is credited with introducing slow and deliberate reaction shots in his Laurel and Hardy shorts, thus slowing down the rushing pace of Mack Sennett–style silent comedy.
Of course, both the slow double take and the “nonreaction” of controlled dismay are as hallowed as theater itself, precisely because they require a give-and-take between the player and the audience, and much of the magic of any McCarey movie occurs as his characters react (which maybe explains why Barry Fitzgerald was nominated for Oscars in both the best actor and best supporting actor categories for Going My Way but won only for supporting himself). Indeed, McCarey's management of his sets was calculated to get improvisation and interaction from his players. He would arrive with no one knowing what they were going to do that day, which would be decided during chats or while McCarey played piano, with lines of dialogue sometimes handed out on tiny pieces of paper. The scene, discovered for the first time, would be the fruit of McCarey, the players, and the characters. "We never knew or cared when quitting time came," said Victor Moore (Barkley Cooper in Make Way for Tomorrow), typically.
In Make Way, Anita's continual reactions draw us in because they compel us to figure out what a face means, to discover a telltale gesture barely hinted at, and in making this effort, we are converted from passive watchers to offstage prompters. Half-expressed emotions oblige us to complete the thoughts. Similarly, we feel complicit when (six times in Make Way) two people make faces behind the back of a third; we take sides in the game. Or when we sneak with the maid to a keyhole to eavesdrop—and still can't find out why granddaughter Rhoda didn't come home, or what the phone call was, unless we happen to catch a throwaway line three scenes later (“Mrs. Clare promised to keep Rhoda's name out of the case”), and even then we have to chew on it. And we have to chew again to figure out why daughter Cora is so upset that Max brings her father soup. (She's like Cary Grant in McCarey's The Awful Truth, who accuses his wife of adultery: Cora doesn't make soup, and Grant's had an affair—and in both films, it's up to us to put two and two together. These are instances of what Jean Renoir meant when he famously remarked that McCarey understood people better than anyone else in Hollywood.) Indeed, McCarey's people often do what we don't expect. And often we want to shout at them, "Why don't you do this? Why didn't you do that?" (There aren't many movies like that, are there?)
In climactic moments, present time takes on a haunted aura: dialogue resonates, characters pose iconically, gestures unfold mythically, all their lives are encapsulated in body language that is rich, clear, and without extra movement—even though everyone appears to be behaving perfectly normally—because both they and we know these are images to be remembered always. These are the moments of change, of redemption, of grace, of revolution, of going one's way.
The revolution in Make Way for Tomorrow comes in three waves. Forty minutes into the picture, Lucy has been so aggravating that when Anita finally lets her have it, she speaks for all of us. Not that Anita needs words. Her adamantine assault impacts us, through Lucy, just by the way McCarey composes his frame.
But now, suddenly, Lucy's bathetic helplessness is replaced by iron control and an apology. She stares seemingly into the camera—at Anita but also at us. And speaks to Anita but also to us, defying us.
Anita, in reply, also stares at us, her eyes baring her soul. It's a collision of eyes, and we're in the middle. We become the repository of the space (and emotions) they share. Complicit indeed. If we feel tempted to pass judgment on them, we immediately know we can't.
Crosscuts of this sort, 180 degrees, are extremely rare in films—with the singular exception of those of Yasujiro Ozu, who started doing them in the 1920s and never stopped, for reasons identical to McCarey's here. Perhaps we are caught up in the story, don't notice cuts and angles, and just accept that two people are talking. But once we do notice and feel, physically feel, their eyes thrusting their souls into our hearts, the movie's dynamics change from a drip to a torrent. Coincidentally, Make Way for Tomorrow inspired Ozu scenarist Kogo Noda to write a similar drama for Tokyo Story (1953).
The second wave of revolution comes at fifty-eight minutes, again in 180-degree cuts between people staring at us. Lucy tells us (and son George, played by Thomas Mitchell) that she prefers to live in the old ladies' home.
Neither of these revolutions, nor any of the scenes that follow of Lucy and her husband, Barkley, together in Manhattan, is in the novel from which the film derives. Josephine Lawrence's 1934 best seller, Years Are So Long, ends with Lucy more helpless than ever, confused and dazed beside Bark's grave—he dies three months after they lose their house—while George tells her (with resentment, because her incomprehension doesn't make it easy for him) that her children are consigning her to a home.
In contrast, McCarey's Lucy changes—into a heroine. She takes charge, accepts death, all with her eyes. Her stares defy our labeling of her, of old people in general. We shriek in helpless outrage at life, but sacrifice is unrelentingly demanded of a McCarey hero, and Lucy is stronger than any of us. And wiser, though we thought she was totally out of it. So she does make it easier for George.
“I hated to tell you as much as you would have hated to tell me anything like that,” she declares, commandeering George's lines (the way Michel/Nickie does Terry's at the end of 1939's Love Affair and its remake, 1957's An Affair to Remember, pretending that he was the one who didn't show up for their rendezvous). Now Lucy sits upright; George can't stand upright. Like Velázquez, McCarey depicts the space between people; the columns affirm that Lucy is doing the only possible thing. But she's doing it her way.
Previously, McCarey's compositions put Lucy in an arena of gawking disapproval.
Now George and Anita form a proscenium, but it's themselves they gawk at and their reflections that gawk back at them.
The third wave of revolution is when Lucy takes charge of Bark. Like all McCarey heroes, she believes, as in the song from Love Affair, that “wishing can make it so,” which goes to the heartbeat of Western civilization. Insistently, she makes the best of the hand she is dealt. In contrast to the usherette in the theater earlier, who complained that the guy in the film playing there was a “rat,” Lucy admires the way “the girl believed . . . no matter how black things looked.” Indeed, when Lucy admonishes Rhoda—“When you're seventy . . . about the only fun you have left is pretending that there ain't any facts to face"—we pity her, but what we take for weakness turns out to be strength. In attending to Bark, Lucy makes their last hours joyful and full when they could have been unrelieved agony.
And now the circle of people around them is welcoming, now they fit in.
With moral command, Lucy accepts the inevitable defeats of life, defeats that are universal. And after Bark is gone, she's shattered, but turns to go her way, alone.
May we have her strength as we go our way.
• • •
Said McCarey, “I had just lost my father, and we were real good friends. I admired him so much.” McCarey spent almost a year making Make Way for Tomorrow. He worked for greatly reduced salary, refused any stars, and stayed deaf to the constant pleas from Paramount chief Adolph Zukor for a happier ending. Inevitably, the movie got admiring reviews and was a box-office disaster. Paramount let McCarey go, and he went to Columbia and made one of the decade's top grossers, a screwball comedy, The Awful Truth, which won McCarey an Oscar and more or less invented Cary Grant. Still, Make Way for Tomorrow was always McCarey's favorite of his films.
Beulah Bondi (1889–1981) made a career of playing older women. She was forty-eight at the time of Make Way for Tomorrow, and had made her Broadway debut at thirty-seven, playing a seventy-nine-year-old. She was nominated for two Oscars, for The Gorgeous Hussy (1936) and Of Human Hearts (1938), and won an Emmy for The Waltons in 1977. Typical of her dedication, when John Ford told her she had a role in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), she bought old clothes and lived for weeks in an Okie camp, and was still there when she learned that a Fox contract player, Jane Darwell, had been given the part to save money.
Victor Moore (1876–1962) appeared in thirty-five comedy shorts in the teens, then in dozens of talkies, often musicals, as a timid sidekick. Critics thought he had been cast against type with Make Way, but then so had McCarey, whose métier had hitherto been slapstick and screwball. The Victor Moore Arcade bus terminal in Queens, New York, is named for him.
Fay Bainter (1893–1968) made her stage debut at five. She won an Oscar for Jezebel (1938) and was nominated for White Banners (1938) and The Children's Hour (1961).
Scenarist Viña Delmar (1903–90) was nominated for an Oscar for The Awful Truth.
Josephine Lawrence (1889–1978) wrote thirty-three novels and some one hundred children's books, and for nearly thirty years edited a question-and-answer column in the Newark Sunday Call, where the most insistent question in her mail was “Must I support my father and mother?”
Tag Gallagher has written books on John Ford and Roberto Rossellini, as well as numerous articles, and produced video analyses of Rossellini, Ford, Ophuls, Hawks, Preminger, Dreyer, and von Sternberg. This piece was orignally included in the Criterion Collection's 2009 DVD edition of Make Way for Tomorrow.