These notes accompany the screening of Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow on December 29, 30, and 31 in Theater 3.
Leo McCarey (1898–1969) reached his creative peak in 1937, the year of The Awful Truth and Make Way for Tomorrow. He had already written and directed countless Hal Roach shorts, discovered the wacky chemistry between Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and handled the likes of Eddie Cantor, Mae West, and the Marx Brothers. Make Way for Tomorrow is a film of devastating emotional impact and almost indescribable inner beauty. The great Japanese director, Yasujiro Ozu, gave McCarey credit for inspiring his own best film, Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story), another masterpiece from 1953 about aging parents and insensitive families. McCarey, a director known for his comic genius, here faces his material dead-on and uncompromisingly. As the marvelous Beulah Bondi says in one of the film’s most poignant moments, “When you’re seventy…about all the fun you have left is pretending there aren’t any facts to face.” There was no more cure for old age in 1937 than there is today, and McCarey showed rare courage (the film caused Paramount to fire him) in not taking an easy way out. He knew that the only way out was in a box. However, the film was written by Vina Delmar, who also wrote The Awful Truth, the first genuinely great screwball comedy. So much of the film is rich with humor intermingled with the sadness. As McCarey once told an interviewer, “I like people to laugh; I like them to cry.”
When he wanted to, McCarey could certainly use the technical resources of the cinema to achieve desired effects, but time and again he falls back on—and is redeemed by—his direction of actors. Perhaps no other major figure, save Charles Chaplin, depends so little on mise-en-scène and so much on his camera’s ability to magically capture the elan vital of human beings, to preserve on celluloid the sublime spark of two souls rubbed together. Spoiler alert: At the end of this authentically simple but not simple-minded film, we are left with the totally romantic and painfully spare image of an old lady standing beside a moving train, waving goodbye to her man of 50 years as it bears him away. On the soundtrack, unashamedly and perfectly, is “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” an instrumental reprise of the duet they have just sung together. As Leo McCarey makes us cry, we know as they do that it will now be solo for all their tomorrows. Make Way For Tomorrow was named this week to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
Blake Edwards (1922–2010), long one the world’s greatest living directors, died two weeks ago, and it seems especially appropriate to mention him in the context of Leo McCarey. In a sense, Edwards was the McCarey of his generation; he was equally gifted at comedy, particularly the art of slapstick that McCarey played a major role in developing, (A Shot in the Dark and the other Pink Panther movies, The Party, The Great Race, Darling Lili, Victor/Victoria) and poignancy (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Days of Wine and Roses). His best films expertly trod the treacherous line between these two extremes. The Great Race was dedicated to Laurel and Hardy. Edwards extracted great performances from Audrey Hepburn, Lee Remick, Jack Lemmon, Julie Andrews, and, of course, Peter Sellers. The flesh-and-blood link was Cary Grant, who had made nearly 30 films before The Awful Truth, but whom McCarey transformed into the greatest romantic leading man the talkies would ever know. Edwards’s Operation Petticoat (1959) was hardly The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, or North by Northwest, but it’s nice to think that possibly a little bit of McCarey’s 1930s magic rubbed off on the young director who was to go on to make his masterpiece, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, at the same age McCarey made The Awful Truth and Make Way for Tomorrow.
The coming of sound in 1927 opened up a whole new genre to filmmakers: the musical. Much of the stuff that was turned out tended to be diverting but frivolous. For the most part, these films were less memorable than an occasional production number, and thus choreographers tended to be more important than the relative hacks who directed the movie. At Warner Brothers, Busby Berkeley (who soon became a director) brought a grandiose but somewhat perverse vision to his fantasies, akin in some ways to Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, as Morris Dickstein points out in Dancing in the Dark. Flying Down to Rio was the first of seventeen collaborations between Fred Astaire and Hermes Pan. Pan’s long career included stints with Vincente Minnelli, George Cukor, and two films with Blake Edwards. This sampling, American Musicals: Famous Production Numbers, is intended as a holiday treat.