1937, Movies

Make Way For Tomorrow (1937, Leo McCarey)

This film is maddening and all the more maddening given its reputation. I suspect its reputation is earned in part from the Americans who had not seen films like this and decided that this must be some kind of masterpiece. Why did Orson Welles like this movie so much? Had he never seen anything like this? And why does Errol Morris love it? Surely he’s seen something better?

An elderly couple lose their home because of the Great Depression, even though the home looks awful nice and they look so old it’s hard to imagine they still have a mortgage. (Their kids have kids. One of their children is played by an actress who was nearly 50. One of their grandchildren is played by an actress who was 20.) Though one of their children is supposedly married to a man who lost his job due to the depression, all the children’s homes look too nice. And they look too big to not have enough rooms for their parents. One of the problems with relying on sets is they don’t look like real places and it’s hard to understand how these middle class-looking people cannot have enough bedrooms for one couple. Even the couple in the apartment look like they easily have enough rooms. (By the way, they all say they live in apartments but only one looks like an apartment.) One of the families employs a maid, ffs!

These children are all awful, and this film is awful for what it’s trying to do. The children are caricatures. Cora in particular (who is played by a woman 12 years younger than her father and only 2 years younger than her mother!!!) just feels utterly ridiculous – she’s just a villain. She appears to hate her father but the film never tries to explain why she’s such an asshole to him. All these kids are just ungrateful brats in adult clothes and it feels like an extremely simplistic view of the issues between adult children and their parents.

The film seems designed to make children feel guilty about the changes in family life wrought by technological and broad societal change. I don’t exactly know when the child labour laws came into place but it wasn’t that long before this movie was made that children were produced for many families primarily as a source of labour or earnings. Childhood was not exactly great, unless you were the children of the filthy rich.

This film wants you to think that children becoming independent form their parents and moving to new cities is bad. That’s never a message I’ve had much sympathy for. And I’d have a lot more sympathy for the other message – that children should look after their parents in their old age – if the film wasn’t so fucking heavy-handed with the guilt it’s trying to lay on its audience for having the gall to have lives separate from those of their parents. (Also, if the kids weren’t so awful, it would make a big difference.)

This film apparently inspired by Tokyo Story but Tokyo Story is so much better it’s not even funny. Tokyo Story feels real. The Hollywood artifice of this film and its hilariously unsubtle message substantially undermine the moral the film wants us to learn. It doesn’t help how different things were in the US in the 1930s from now, with their weird moral ideas about how women shouldn’t drink in public and all sorts of other things. (At least in Japan I expect some different public morals.)

There’s the odd joke in here, which alleviates at least some of the unrelenting moralizing of this film. And you do root for the old couple as they go on their little bender (but only because their kids are caricatures).

The nearly unrelenting misery of the film is really out of place for Hollywood but that is the only part of the film I find worthwhile. (Okay, okay, I laughed once or twice.) Watching this so soon after Tokyo Story really puts into relief how much better international realist cinema was handling these types of themes. Hollywood just cut too many corners. This film does that and that’s why I find it so underwhelming.


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