Wednesday, June 30, 2010

1937: The Year of McCarey

1937 was a miracle year for director Leo McCarey, helming two of the greatest movies ever made and winning the Oscar for Best Director for the screwball comedy “The Awful Truth.”

“The Awful Truth” is a comedy gem that still holds up wonderfully today. McCarey’s other effort, “Make Way for Tomorrow”, is a shattering drama of elderly parents and their children’s responsibility to care for them. It’s every bit as relevant today as it was in 1937, if not more so.

Upon receiving his Oscar, McCarey famously thanked the Academy but told them he received it for the wrong movie. And he’s right. “Make Way for Tomorrow” is a stunning movie on every level, one which pulls no punches and refuses to sentimentalize its situations. Orson Welles called “Make Way for Tomorrow” the saddest movie ever made and said it could make a stone cry. Its recent DVD issue on the Criterion label is the best news for movie fans in many a moon.

In addition to its director, “The Awful Truth” and “Make Way for Tomorrow” share the same co-writer Vina Delmar. According to the Peter Bogdanovich interview on the “Make Way for Tomorrow” DVD, McCarey saw the very attractive Delmar on the lot and asked her out. She rebuffed him. A while later, he heard about this young writer who would be a perfect collaborator for him on “Make Way for Tomorrow.” Who walks in but the woman he tried to woo. They laughed about it and became good friends and collaborated later that year on “The Awful Truth.”

Make Way for Tomorrow

But “Make Way for Tomorrow” came first and what a jewel it is. Apart from the costumes it could have been made yesterday. “Pa” Barkley and “Ma” Lucy Cooper (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi) have been married for more than 50 years. In the film’s opening scene, they announce to their gathered children that because Pa hasn’t worked in several years, they are losing their home. The grown children need to adjust their lives to make new arrangements for their parents. Pa goes to live with one of the daughters while Ma goes to live 150 miles away with her favorite son George (Thomas Mitchell), his wife Anita (Fay Bainter) and teenage daughter Rhoda (Barbara Read). The arrangements are thought to be only temporary until something permanent can be arranged.

The beauty of “Make Way for Tomorrow” is its realism. While Pa and Ma Barkeley are likeable, they’re also stubborn and are a handful to their children. Anita blows up her mother-in-law in a scene which is painful to watch. We can feel for Anita, though, even though we hope she can cut Ma some slack. But Ma has also exhibited thoughtless behavior on several occasions, without meaning to. No Hollywood false images here, just a realistic look at family dynamics.

We sympathize with the family’s plight yet still cringe when Ma comes into Anita’s bridge party and tries to engage in conversation with everyone while they’re trying to play bridge. Rhoda is soon embarrassed about bringing friends over because Ma wants to spend all their time talking to them. Soon Rhoda is meeting her friends outside of the home, including hints of an illicit relationship with an older man. (This leads to some kind of trouble but we’re not sure what).

Pa is cantankerous with his daughter and she starts snapping at him in ways she never would have before.

Eventually the temporary arrangements no longer work and the movie begins its ascent into cinematic nirvana. George is forced to move his mother into a retirement home and Pa will be moving across the country to be with another daughter in California. Ma and Pa spend one last day together before going their separate ways forever.

The people they meet on that last day together sense something special about the couple, and show great kindness to them. Isn’t this true, that we sometimes show more concern and compassion to others than we do our own family members? The Barkleys go back to the hotel where they spent their honeymoon, where they are treated with incredible thoughtfulness by the staff. Not in a maudlin sort of way, but in a very human way. (The scene where the hotel’s bandleader changes music from swing to a gentle waltz so Pa and Ma can dance together is one for the books.).

The final scene….more I will not say, but have lots of Kleenex available.

Moore is a revelation here. Best known for his comedy roles in movies like “Swing Time” (1936), he plays someone decades older than himself and does so spectacularly. Beulah Bondi was only 47 at the time but thanks to old age makeup, she is more than convincing in playing a woman who has been married for more than 50 years. They are amazing together.

The always reliable Thomas Mitchell has the pivotal role of the favorite son and the scene where he has to tell his mother he’s putting her in the home….wow. Very hard to watch and beautifully acted by Mitchell and Bondi.

Paramount had little faith in the movie and barely gave it any kind of publicity push. Who wants to see a movie about old people and their problems? It was not a success and laid relatively unknown save for those who retained fond memories of it and later McCarey scholars who screened the film at film festival showings.

Thanks to Criterion, the film is now available for all to enjoy. Show it to someone who thinks films of Hollywood’s Golden Age are all light, frivolous entertainment and have no relation to the real world. “Make Way for Tomorrow” does, and painfully so.

The Awful Truth

“The Awful Truth” is one of the wittiest comedies to come out of Hollywood’s Golden Age. It could be the gentlest movie ever made about divorce, partly because we know Jerry and Lucy Warriner (Cary Grant and Irene Dunne) really do love each other. (Even though the film does strongly suggest at the beginning they both engaged in affairs.)

Before the divorce is final, however, Jerry and Lucy do their best to sabotage the other’s new romances. It’s as if they subconsciously know they really won’t get divorced and are going to have a good time in the process.

How those sabotage activities take place is the centerpiece of the film. What makes “The Awful Truth” such an unending delight is there’s nothing mean spirited about it. Both Lucy and Jerry take great delight in each other’s chicanery and one upmanship. They’re each other’s best audience, and we’re the lucky bystanders.

For example, Jerry is oozingly polite to dim bulb Dan Leeson (an Oscar nominated Ralph Bellamy) as a rich rancher from Oklahoma visiting New York City with his mother (Esther Dale). Lucy accepts his offer of marriage (he’s so stable you know, unlike her soon to be ex-husband) and Jerry tells her how lucky she is to get out of New York City with its crowded streets, shops and show openings and settle down in Oklahoma City. “And if you ever get bored, you can always spend the weekend in Tulsa,” he tells her in the driest Cary Grant voice possible. . I saw this once at a revival screening and that line bought the house down. I bet they even laughed in Oklahoma.

Lucy reads in the paper of Jerry’s infatuation with heiress Barbara Vance (Molly Lamont) and shows up at one of Barbara’s dinner parties as Jerry’s eccentric sister from Paris. The final shot of this uproarious sequence offers one of my favorite Cary Grant moments. After Lucy’s impromptu singing of “Gone with the Wind” he escorts her away from Barbara and her family (he realizes the marriage will never take place) and bows to Lucy and the others, with an enormous grin on his face. It almost looks improvised. I’ve rarely seen Grant so relaxed and spontaneous.

“The Awful Truth” was nominated for Best Picture but lost to “The Life of Emile Zola.” The other nominations that year: “A Star is Born”; “Captains Courageous”; “Dead End”; “In Old Chicago”; “Lost Horizon”; “One Hundred Men and a Girl”; “Stage Door”; “The Good Earth.”

That’s an amazing list, and every one of those movies – every one - still offers first-rate entertainment, and are as wonderful now as they were more than 60 years ago. One can see why the Academy had to have 10 Best Picture nominees. Will the 10 Oscar-nominated films from last year (or this year) be as well remembered and loved? I sincerely doubt it.


Classicfilmboy said...

Great post! Admittedly, I haven't seen "Make Way for Tomorrow" in moer than 25 years and have forgotten most of it. I should revisit. I thoroughly enjoy "The Awful Truth." I remember reading something about Leo McCarey not having a script finished when filming began, which drove Irene Dunne and Cary Grant crazy. However, it all came together, and I love the physical component to Grant's work, a nod to his days as an acrobat.

Kevin Deany said...

Interesting observations about Grant's acrobatic work. I hadn't thought of that. He uses his tumbling experience again the next year in "Holiday" which I also recently watched. I forgot how good that movie is.

Classicfilmboy said...

"Holiday" is a great film. Perhaps we can both blog about it!

Kevin Deany said...

Sounds good to me.

Unknown said...

Kevin, there is a wonderful moment from the 1937 Academy Awards Ceremony; preserved on film and found in the twentieth minute of the "Frank Capra Jr. Remembers," accompanying special feature for the dvd, "You Can't Take It With You," where Capra Sr. presents the Oscar to McCarey, shakes his hand, and then reaching back, grabs the statuette by the torso and with a good-natured, smiling expression, attempts to tug-of-war it away from Mr. McCarey. What Mr. Capra seems to jokingly be trying to say is that he thinks he should have won the award for his film, "Lost Horizon." The ten-second clip ends before we see who wins the match, but we know that it is indeed McCarey, as we're certain Mr. Capra would surrender it gracefully. And besides, Mr. McCarey has a hold of Oscar by the base.
Somewhere there must be footage of his acceptance speech, which would have made a marvellous special feature on the Criterion release. What director today would have the intestinal fortitude to dare risk professional shunning by making such a declaration?