Saturday, April 3, 2010

#505: Make Way for Tomorrow

(Leo McCarey, 1937)

This is one of the specific kind of great movies that Criterion is made for: the out-of-circulation Hollywood classic. One of the greatest moments of my life (yes, I'm a nerd) came when Criterion announced the release of Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise, one of my five favorite romantic comedies of all time, and a film that was never released on VHS or DVD. I had only seen the film one-and-a-half times up to that point: once in a revival theater and once when I caught it halfway through on TCM. So what I'm saying is that I know how people who have previously seen Make Way Tomorrow, which suffered a similar fate until Criterion shined a light on it, must feel with this new release.

It's not really surprising that Make Way for Tomorrow has never been released on home video. A drama about old people with a sad ending and no stars isn't exactly a big draw. Even the biggest name associated with the film, director Leo McCarey, who made Duck Soup, Going My Way, and (in the same year as MWFT) The Awful Truth (which might also make that rom com top five I mentioned) is generally upstaged by the stars of his classic movies. So the urge to issue a movie like this has to come from a place of love rather than accounting, and after all isn't that what Criterion is here for?

The most obvious cinematic connection to Make Way for Tomorrow is Ozu's Tokyo Story. Both films deal with an older couple whose children no longer have time for them in their busy, modern lives. And for the first hour of this earlier film, the tone of each film in contrast with the other is a perfect representation of the differences between early Hollywood and essential Japanese cinema. Melodramatic and - superficially, at least - clumsily obvious where Ozu's work is understated and subtle, McCarey's film represents an entertaining version of the realistic interactions that actually take place in Ozu's film.

Yet it's the final thirty minutes of the film where its place as a classic is cemented. As the elderly couple prepares to be parted, almost certainly for the rest of their lives, they spend five hours together in New York City, reminiscing and attempting to reclaim a small piece of the life they had together. It's a beautiful sequence, and one of the most moving I have ever seen. With hindsight, the rest of the film doesn't seem quite as blatant, as the interactions that are most obvious on first viewing don't seem to be the important ones. It's the moments of silence and quiet favors and rejections between family members, fathers and sons, daughters-in-law and grandmothers, that are most memorable, important, and ultimately affecting. In this way, the movie is much more like Tokyo Story than first imagined, and in fact, I read that the writers of the later film were influenced by Make Way for Tomorrow.

When McCarey won Best Director for The Awful Truth, he kindly thanked the academy, but explained that they had given him the award for the wrong picture. The Awful Truth is one of the ten best films made in Hollywood in the golden 1930s. Make Way for Tomorrow isn't quite that good, but it stands the test of time remarkably well, and thanks to this release it will certainly join Tokyo Story in the canon of films made about people in the twilight of their life.

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