Classic Movie Review: Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)


Title: Make Way for Tomorrow
Release Date: May 9, 1937
Director: Leo McCarey
Production Company: Paramount
Summary/Review:

I’d never heard of Leo McCarey before, but he directed two films in 1937, and they’re both masterpieces of film-making.  While The Awful Truth is an improvised screwball comedy about a wealthy couple, Make Way for Tomorrow is a drama more grounded in the Great Depression reality of the time (but also highly relevant 82 years later).  McCarey won the Best Director Oscar for The Awful Truth, but in his acceptance speech he stated he deserved the award for Make Way for Tomorrow.

The movie begins with an elderly couple, Bark (Victor Moore) and Lucy (Beulah Bondi) calling 4 of their 5 adult children together for a family meeting in their home. Bark informs them that since he’s been unemployed for several years, he’s been unable to make payments on their family home and the bank has foreclosed.  None of the children have room to take in both parents, so a plan is made to split them up for the time being with the hope that Bark will find work and they can reunite at a new home. At his advancing age, though, this plan seems overly optimistic.

Bark sleeps on the couch at the city apartment of his daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon), and spends days at the store of his new friend Max (a warm and heartfelt performance by Maurice Moscovitch as a Jewish immigrant shopkeeper).  Meanwhile, Lucy moves into the suburban home of her son George (Thomas Mitchell) and daughter-in-law Anita (Fay Bainter), taking an extra bed in the room of her teenage granddaughter, Rhoda (Barbara Read). The first half of the movie plays as a comedy of manners and focuses on the generation gap.  The children can be cold and clearly see their parents as an intrusion, although they are also sympathetic characters.  Lucy and Bark can be annoying in their own ways.

After several months pass, Cora decides that Bark would be better off living with the unseen fifth sibling in California, justifying it on the basis that the warmer climate would be better for his health. Meanwhile, in one of the more heartbreaking sequences, Lucy preemptively volunteers to move into a retirement home knowing that George is planning to ask her to do so.  The second half of the film takes place over a single day in New York City when Lucy and Bark reunite before Bark’s train departs to California.

The scenes of them together enjoying one another’s company for the first time in months, with another separation hanging over them, are beautiful and tear-jerking.  They decide to skip meeting their children for dinner and instead visit the hotel where they’d spent their honeymoon 50 years earlier, eventually staying for dinner and dancing.  The people they meet – who can see them as humans, rather than problems – treat them with respect and listen to their stories attentively.  And then it all ends with Lucy seeing Bark to his train, both of them knowing that they’ll likely never see one another again, but neither wanting to admit it.

This is an incredible film that deals with serious issues of aging and how our society seems to have no place for our elders.  It’s remarkable for a Hollywood film to not fall into traps of sentimentality or melodrama. It certainly doesn’t have a happy ending, although Bark and Lucy’s last day together is nevertheless joyous.  Moore and Bondi seem so natural in their roles it’s almost as if they’re not acting, although they were both experienced actors, and neither of them was actually elderly.  Moore was 61 and Bondi was 48!  Bondi and Bondi’s makeup artist each deserved an Oscar.

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Blizzard of the Blue Moon by Mary Pope Osbourne


Author: Mary Pope Osbourne
TitleBlizzard of the Blue Moon   
Publication Info: New York : Random House, c2006.
Summary/Review:

This may be my favorite Magic Tree House book yet.  Jack and Annie are sent to Depression-era New York City to find a unicorn (SPOILER: If you didn’t guess, it’s in the Cloisters museum, although there’s a great diversion where Jack & Annie try to go to the Bronx Zoo).  Jack & Annie take a subway and a cab on their quest as they have to fight against a blizzard and a pair of dark wizards en route to their goal.  What’s great about this book is that the fantasy and adventure elements are blended so well with an honest portrayal of the poverty and desperation of the Depression.
Rating: ****

Book Review: Dancing in the Dark by Morris Dickstein


Author: Morris Dickstein
Title: 
Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2010)
ASIN: B004227WFS
Summary/Review:
I’ll start off by saying that this wasn’t this book I was expecting as I was looking for more of the experience of everyday life in the Great Depression.  Upon reflection that would probably be labeled a social history, which is probably obvious to most people, but I thought it worth mentioning in case any potential reader is making the same mistake I did.  The other thing I should note is that I listened to the audiobook and had a lot of trouble with the CDs so I probably did not hear the entire book, although I did hear the majority.  With that said, the book is actually an exploration of culture created during the Great Depression – films, music, novels, poetry, fine arts and decorative arts – and how they were influenced by the social trends of the time and in turn their effect (or lack thereof) on society.  The essays Dickstein writes are thorough and opinionated and often out of my league since they refer to things of which I have no prior knowledge.  That being said I did enjoy his critique on artists and performers such as John Steinbeck, Zora Neale Hurston, Busby Berkley, Fred Astaire, Louis Armstrong, and Bing Crosby.  Overall this book was not for me but I expect it would be a valuable resource for anyone looking for the light some cultural artifacts of the 1930s shine on the Great Depression.

Rating: **

Book Review: The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan


This is the review for my January 2008 entry to the Book A Month Challenge:

The Worst Hard Time (2005) by Timothy Egan tells “The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.” Rooted in oral history, the book reads like an epic novel although it is all true no matter how unearthly it may sound (and when I say unearthly I don’t mean it as a bad pun). There is grit in Egan’s writing style that reflects the grit of the dust storms and the grit of the people determined to remain on the land that betrayed them.

Or did they betray the land, as many outsiders portray the over-farming that preceded the Dust Bowl as the root cause of this environmental disaster. Pioneers in America’s last frontier managed to make the largest wheat crop in history from the dry land, although they saw no benefit from it as the price of wheat plummeted and the grains rotted at train depots and in the fields. In the ensuing years parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado would turn into vast oceans of shifting dust.

There is a lot of repetition in The Worst Hard Time although this too is an effective writing device. The repetition reflects the horror of the dust storms returning day after day, month after month, and year after year. Some storms even carried the dust of the Plains to the big cities on the East Coast and out to sea. The people of the Dust Bowl also dealt with static electricity that could knock a man over, searing heat, and biblical plagues of biting insects, grasshoppers (who generally ate whatever crop they might grow), and rabbits (who became the subject of Sunday clubbings).

Egan introduces the reader to a fascinating cross-section of characters. The old cowboy attached to the land. The doctor who moved to the Plains for his health and ends up having to provide free care to all the people suffering in the unhealthiest environment on Earth. The mother who loses her baby to dust pneumonia. The cornhusker who keeps a diary of short but poignant entries that document the Apocalypse.

This excellent historical work is an early candidate for my favorite books read in 2008.

Related Links:

NPR: Dust Bowl Stories from ‘The Worst Hard Time’

The American Experience

The Library of Congress: American Memory

The full film The Plow that Broke the Plains: