Sowing Wheat and Getting Ashes: Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

Life flies past us so swiftly that few of us 
pause to consider those who have lost the tempo of today.
 - Opening epigraph, Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)     

You may remember a bit of bemoaning from a couple of weeks ago:

I was in the midst of two weeks' visit and general caretaking with my grandparents (aged 89 and 90), and the visit was filled with delights.*  But the mysteries of Netflix (notice how I distance myself from the fact that I am the organizing principle behind all this - the invisible hand of the free queue) meant that my first disc upon arriving back in the USA after a long time away was a famously weepy tragedy involving the callous abandonment of an elderly couple by their progeny.

So it was that I approached watching Leo McCarey's unsung masterpiece of mature romance, Make Way for Tomorrow, with some reluctance.  But when it was over, I was so struck by the nuance and sincerity of it all, and above all by its respectful, round treatment of a profoundly unmediagenic theme, that I talked about it ceaselessly to my grandparents and all their friends.  I couldn't seem to get off the subject, despite a certain lack of enthusiasm I detected in my audience for the topic of growing old to discover your children are miserable, selfish ingrates.

The premise is this: Ma and Pa (played by Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore, both decades younger than the parts they are playing) call their children together for an announcement.  Pa (yes, they call each other Ma and Pa almost to the exclusion of any other names, which made me wince and dread a Leave-it-to-Beaveresque tale) has lost his job, and with it the ability to pay their mortgage.  The banker (one of Ma's old beaux) has given them six months to find a solution.  Great!, the kids say, that gives us plenty of time to come up with something for you.  Well, Pa adds, the six months are up this week.  We were hoping to solve the problem on our own, without bothering you all.

Already we can see the careful way McCarey has crafted this family dynamic.  The kids are understandable nonplussed: now they are facing a desperate situation, and the potential upheaval of their households if they take in the elder generation, with no time to adapt, prepare, or gather resources.  But it is hard to take Ma and Pa to task - they are the matriarch and patriarch of this family, loathe to impose their problems on their independent children, or to accept that they are no longer completely in control of their own lives.

Ultimately, they hit on a horrible solution: no one has room for two more in their home except the wealthiest sister, and she is saddled with a rich husband who wants nothing to do with his in-laws. At one point he refuses to have her mother over for the evening, because they have plans to go out.  You should just tell them, he insists, that we are never going to take her on.
"Coincidentally," his wife says, as she gets ready to do her nails, "who are we going out with tonight?"

"My mother."  Piercing glare from his wife.  "But that's different."

Furious nail-filing.  And then, casually, poisonously, she replies: "I was so afraid it would be someone I didn't like."
So the eldest son takes in his mother, putting her in a room with her callow-as-can-be teenage grand-daughter (Rhoda), and his sister takes in her father, making room for him on the couch of their one-bedroom house.  It's just temporary, they all assure themselves.  Just until rich daughter works something more permanent out with her husband. (She won't.)  Or until Pa gets a job.

So the couple of fifty years, who had promised themselves they would always be together, go their separate ways.

The minute portrait of family life that follows is excruciating - and this is a mark of how well crafted it is.  The teenage grand-daughter's friends won't come to the apartment any more because they are embarrassed by Ma, who eagerly chats with them.  Rhoda starts going out more, making dates with much older men, even staying away whole nights at a time, to her family's distress.  Don't you want to spend time with boys your own age, her grandmother gently asks - boys whom you might want to marry?  The look of scorn this question elicits is familiar to anyone who has ever had or been a teenage child.  Ma intervenes in her daughter-in-law's parenting and housekeeping, claiming that she just wants to lift the burden from her as she works.  But, dear!, she says, You seem so busy playing bridge.  I don't play bridge, the daughter-in-law replies through clenched teeth, I teach bridge.  Each intervention is like a criticism: you are too involved in making money to pay attention to what really matters - taking care of your family.  I found myself turning pretty strongly against Ma.

Meanwhile, Pa is staying with a considerably more crotchety daughter, who becomes irritated with him when he falls ill, and rushes him from the tiny couch to their bedroom for appearance's sake when the doctor arrives to take a look at him. Still, Pa can't seem to stop harping on about how untrustworthy the perfectly competent doctor is, complaining that a bit of Ma's cooking and caretaking always put him right in the past.  When the doctor asks him to make certain sounds while he listens to his lungs, Pa refuses.  When the poor man tries to examine his throat, Pa bites him.  My patience with these parents begins to run very, very thin.

In a classic piece of ambivalent film-making, McCarey sets up a scene in which Pa calls Ma on the telephone.  We only hear her side: she receives the call in the middle of a bridge lesson at the apartment.  (Let's recall that the family's livelihood depends in part on these bridge lessons.) Before the call, she had the maid bring her chair into the center of the room, where she rocks creakily and loudly, drawing alarmed looks from the clients, all of whom are wearing black tie.  From time to time she goes around the table, looking at the cards and complimenting the players in great detail on the features of their hands.  Her daughter-in-law begins to sweat.

Then the phone rings, and it is Pa.  She starts to talk, at the top of her lungs, the way those who don't often use cell phones still do, unable to believe the voice could travel so far without a really powerful set of pipes behind it.  She is giddily happy to hear his voice.  Soon all the heads in the bridge room are turned towards her, although she has her back to them.  She believes she is entirely alone with Pa; we know she has an audience, imposing on their privacy.  But it is an increasingly tender audience - they (we) can see the affection at work here, and they (we) sympathize.  The bridge players exchange a series of small smiles.  Soon Ma's anxieties come to the fore.  Is it cold there?  Pa isn't used to the cold.  How much did he pay for this phone call?  Well, she concludes sadly, he could have bought himself a nice warm scarf for that price.

She hangs up, and we know he won't call again.

This isn't the only time that McCarey writes a surrogate audience into the film for us, modeling the affection he wants us to feel for this exasperating couple.  At one point, Pa receives a letter from Ma, but he has broken his glasses, so he goes to a shopkeeper he has befriended and asks him to read it aloud.  The shopkeeper is a remarkably three-dimensional character - somehow he is the essence of Jewish film stereotypes, and yet warmer and more genuine than any of the couple's awful children.  The device of the letter lets us step squarely into his shoes, allowing us cannily into the intimacy of their longing for each other (finally the shopkeeper decides it is too private a letter and can't go on). But it also creates a complex scenario for the revelation of a key piece of news: Ma is being shown around retirement homes, in the unspoken hope that she will get used to the idea of them.  Pa is clearly aware not just of the implication of this news, although Ma doesn't lay it out clearly, but also of his friend's judgment.

As outrageous as these filial tactics seem, the truth is that Ma is putting enormous pressure on the income and emotional stability of her son's household. When she sees that they have written away for information about a facility for aged ladies, she preempts the inevitable.  I have been thinking, she tells her son, that I would really rather be at a facility.  Don't tell me no.  She takes his face in her hands: "You always were my favorite."  There is no mind game here; this is an era in which less public stigma (although no less private trauma, I suspect) was attached to parents' having favorites among their children.  And indeed he is the least wormlike of her offspring; he at least has the decency to feel guilty about foisting her off on a somewhat bleak retirement home. He walks back into his bedroom, looks at his wife in the mirror, and tells her sardonically that she can be proud of the work he did today.

Ma's conditions for going to the facility aren't many, but they are strongly felt.  First, Pa must never, ever know that she has gone.  He is going to stay with their daughter in faraway California, and his conviction that he will get another job in his seventies - a job that will allow him to bring Ma out to join him - is unshakable.  Even Ma tows the line of this delusion, always claiming that she "believes" in Pa's capacity to solve problems like this.
"Why don't you just face facts?" her grand-daughter asks, insensitive but genuinely frightened for her.

"Oh, Rhoda," Ma replies, without a trace of anger in her voice, "Where you're seventeen and life is beautiful, facing facts is just as slick fun as dancing or going to parties.  But when you're 70, well, you don't care about dancing, you don't go to parties any more, and about the only fun you have left is pretending that there aren't any facts to face." Gently, as if resigned: "So would you mind if I just kind of ... went on pretending?"
Ma's second condition is that she get to say goodbye to Pa.  They meet in Manhattan, where he is going to catch a train that evening.  They spend the day retracing the events of their honeymoon five decades earlier, and they realize that this is the only vacation they have had together since.  Because this is NYC, everyone is incredibly nice to them, charmed by their obvious affection.  They revisit the hotel they stayed at on their honeymoon, and the management is eager to treat them to anything they might like.  Pa urges Ma to have a drink with him at the bar.  Oh no, I coudn't, she cries.  But look, Ma, he says, women are drinking here now.  Tentatively, she looks up and down the bar, and then she orders... an old-fashioned.  They go to dance, and the bandleader sees them struggle with the jaunty music of the thirties.  He abruptly stops the song, to the consternation of all the other dancers, and strikes up a waltz, just for them.

This scene contained the very moment when I realized how brilliant a piece of work this film is.  Ma and Pa sit at a table in the ballroom of their honeymoon hotel of yore.  This is a scene well known from thirties cinema, but the figures are unfamiliar - we expect Marlene or Greta, not this homespun, dowdy pair.  As one of the commentators on the Criterion disc notes, this is the very rare film that is a romance of old age.  But a romance it is: they are swept away in the moment, and they lean towards each other, backs to us, in that classic Hollywood shot.  Moments before their lips touch, she looks, startled, back over her shoulder.  Straight at the camera.  Then, smiling, she leans away from him.  It is a perfect moment - more expressive of romance within the values of a certain era than a kiss ever could be.  And the way it involves - ensnares - the audience is chilling.

They skirt the issue of their upcoming parting and dance around the topic of their truly awful children.  Who is really to blame for this situation?  McCarey has laid a careful foundation for the tragedy that is the end of this film: their separation is inevitable and heartless, but wholly plausible.  Their lives with their children really are untenable, for clear and specific reasons.  Ma even understands her own complicity in the outcome, without absolving her children: "If I'd been all I thought it was, things'd be different now.  You don't sow wheat and get ashes, Pa."

The day is supposed to end with a big family dinner before they all deliver Pa to his train.  But Ma and Pa decide, in the final analysis, to blow their children off.  Pa does this, skillfully, in a phone call to his kids - a call the McCarey chooses not to show us in its entirety, but which the kids feel is a sign that Pa understands the extent of their betrayal.   They fret and grind their teeth over how inconsiderate these old people are.  But the eldest son - the favorite, you recall - keeps everyone busy until the time has passed when they could see their father off at the train station:
"I kinda thought they'd like to be alone," he admits.

"If we don't go to the station, they'll think we're terrible," one sibling complains.

"Aren't we?"
The final scene of the film is so profoundly tragic, without any trace of histrionics or any need for events outside everyday experience, that I wept uncontrollably.  So did Orson Welles, apparently, since he told Peter Bogdonovich, "Oh my god. That's the saddest movie ever made.  It would make a stone cry.** And nobody went!"

It was indeed a box office failure, coming as it did amid the ravages of the Depression, when people didn't feel like spending a Friday night contemplating the certainty that they would grow old, lose their job and their home, and be rejected by the kids they had spent their entire life caring for.  Studio executives begged McCarey for a happier ending, and cut him loose when he refused and the film didn't sell.  When he won an Oscar for another film he directed that year, The Awful Truth, McCarey told the Academy that he was grateful, but they had praised the wrong film.

It is a film of ideals - simultaneously scathing and understanding like many of the great naturalist novels of the late 19th century, novels which showed their characters being ground into despair by the economic realities of their lives.  Social security had just been passed in 1935, as Gary Giddons points out in the Criterion commentary, and the controversy surrounding it bore a striking similarity to our current debate around health care.  Look, this film says, this is what happens when we allow the market to take its course with the elderly.  Real people are crushed.

Not a profitable film, then, but a fervently admired one.  George Bernard Shaw (always one for a good piece of socially conscious art) wrote a fan letter to McCarey after seeing his film.  Directors all around Hollywood quietly adored it. And years later, in Japan, a film-maker named Ozu made a movie under its influence.  He called it Tokyo Story.

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
Dir. Leo McCarey

* I did spend a lot of time ferrying my grandmother to dentist appointments, which was more grueling for her than it was for me.  Amid these appointments, however, I had a dream that I bit down too hard on something, and all my teeth fell out.  I went to our dentist - who also happens to be a family friend - and he said "Tsk.  You should have come to me more often."  Well, Dr. Freud?

** Phew.  I'm not a stone. I can always count on Orson to save me from these moments of ontological doubt.