La cohabitation n’a jamais fait de bien à personne. (my mother)
Life flies past us so swiftly that few of us pause to consider those who have lost the tempo of today. Their laughter and their tears we do not even understand for there is no magic that will bring together in perfect understanding the aged and the young. There is a canyon between us and the painful gap is only bridged by the ancient words of a very wise man : Honor they father and mother. (MWFT Title).
“I am proud of my children”. “So am I . They don’t need me and I don’t need them.” (Reuben in MWFTM)
Make Way For Tomorrow has been highly acclaimed by famous directors and top critics. Yet it failed at the box office when it was released in 1937 and cost Leo Mac Carey his contract with Paramount. It is not often quoted in studies of old women in films and yet Lucy Cooper is one of the most human characterisations of an old woman on film. It is only in 2010 that the DVD was released in The Masters of Cinema series. In this sensitive family drama I will look at Lucy only. The actor Belah Bundi was under 50 but very convincing as a 70 years slim old woman married for 50 years. The close-ups of her face do not reveal obvious lines and folds but her grey hair swept back in a bun secured by hair clips and mainly her gait and body language, her acting, do convey her age. In the first scenes of the family reunion she is seen standing by Bark her husband who is sitting comfortably in an armchair. A cardigan covers her apron and she holds her hands across her stomach. She smiles shyly with her head cocked down when her sons talk to her affectionately.
M-O-T-H-E-R A Word That Means The World To Me . This sentimental 1915 song is performed by one of the sons, Robert, in an upbeat music hall way in the opening scenes. It sets ironically the gulf between wishes and reality that the film is going to explore and that Lucy verbalises twice. The family gathering has been called to deal with the crisis of the parents’ house being repossessed by the bank. Lucy, the mother, expresses no obvious stress about the fact that they have only a few days to vacate it. There is no criticism of her joking husband for having so mismanaged the situation. These first scenes establish that parents and adult children have not been in contact for a very long time, and that the parents were reluctant to ask for help. The couple have three daughters and two sons. One daughter lives in California and is never seen. The husband of another daughter, Nellie is antagonist to her family. Cora’s circumstances with an unemployed husband are hard. Robert is well-meaning but ineffectual. George is the closest son and strives to find a solution to this emergency. Lucy stops herself from speaking her mind about the proposed one. In spite of Bark’s unhelpful objection she accepts the inevitable temporary separation: “Well never mind what we thought….It will be nice to live with the children”. For three months, Lucy will live with George, Anita and Rhoda while Bark will live with Cora .
“I do not ‘play’ bridge, I ‘teach’ bridge”. The fact that Lucy is a burden in her son’s home is immediately evident. Rhoda, the granddaughter, resents losing her private space in her bedroom and the fact that her friends do not come anymore because the grandmother expects to participate in their conversation. The misunderstanding between Lucy and her daughter-in-law about the bridge lesson exposes painfully the gulf between different generations. Lucy has always been a mother at home whereas Anita is supplementing the family’s income by giving bridge lessons. The bridge lesson sequences are difficult to watch. They start in comedy of embarrassment mode when Lucy’ s rocking chair creaks regularly and disturbs the smart assembly of players. It finishes in the extremely sad intimate conversation on the phone between the separated loving old couple played out to this audience of strangers.
Relationship with Daughter-in-law. Some critics have described Lucy as a controlling, manipulative and self-pitying martyr. This is missing the problems inherent in a situation where an old woman is expected to fit into a new situation not of her choosing. In this case members of George’s family and the home help, in spite of their goodwill resent the intrusion in their everyday life. It is true that Lucy seems to make some decisions without consulting with Anita but Mother/Wife roles tensions as homemakers are understandable: “I was only trying to help“. . . It is hard for Lucy to see everybody leaving her on her own in the evening when she has been used to being with her husband and yet she tells Mamie not to mind her and take the night off. When Anita breaks down under the stress of her daughter not spending the night at home, she delivers the most cruel invective, blaming Lucy for the situation. As opposed to the usual melodrama when emotional explosions lead to escalations, Lucy calmly says in forgiveness : “I know how you feel, you are worried about Rhoda.” However this event will lead to the serious consequence of George and Anita deciding to send Lucy to a retirement home.
Relationship with granddaughter. Here we see the gulf between generations further exposed. There are in the two main scenes involving Rhoda, the beginning of a warm relationship. Rhoda is asked to take her grandmother to the cinema to remove her from the bridge class situation. Rhoda agrees but thinks she can fool her grandmother, leaves her to see the film and disappears to meet her boyfriend. The complicity in hiding this from the parents, establishes a certain a bond between them. Later Rhoda and Lucy discuss their opposing views on the relationship between young men and women. Rhoda in her youth is cruel to Lucy who hopes that Bark will get a job. Insensitive Rhoda says ” “Why don’t you face facts grandma?”. Lucy’s response is : ” When you are 17 … but when you are 70′ the only fun you have left is pretending there ain’t any facts to face, so would you mind if I kind of euh went on pretending?”. The apology and kiss from Rhoda and the silence following is profoundly touching.
Relationship with adult children. In the opening scenes it is obvious without it being glaringly so, that George is Lucy’s favourite child. She does say this in the scene where George prepares to reveal to her Anita’s and his decision to send her to a retirement home. To avoid her son suffering the pain of declaring his loyalty to his wife rather than her, she pre-empt him and declares that she prefers to be in a retirement home rather than with her family. Her only stipulation is that Bark would never know that. Another touching and sad scene. The relationship with her other children is more distant and there seem to be no special bond with her daughters.
Last hours of happiness and life assessment. It is in the last 20 mins of the film that Lucy comes into her own and we get a glimpse of the woman she must have been before becoming a burden to her children. In these scenes we witness the warm lasting love between Lucy and Bark. They are far from being a romantic, sentimental couple. They are reunited and spend the last 5 hours before parting again, reliving their honeymoon in New York and talking about their relationship. As Bark says he has been a failure, she refuses this label and does not judge him. She blames herself for the children not considering the parents’ needs : “You don’t sow wheat and reap ashes“. This shows her deep disappointment that has never been expressed before. She asserts that they have experienced happiness ‘spread thin’ over their 50 years of marriage. She is smartly dressed, and now walks with her head raised high and not looking down. She smiles a lot and has lost the silent inward looking expression. It is she who communicates with the car salesman and the hotel manager and she shows self assurance. This self assurance and acceptance of the inevitable makes the last scene of separation on the station platform between the loving couple so unbearably sad. :”In case I don’t see you again…” says Bark. The pain of separation and mutual declaration of love feel like the final goodbye of death. The fact that Bark goes to sunnier climes may have different connotations for viewers. But the last shot that lasts 1 min. when the train sets off and Lucy is left on her own on the platform is devastating. She has never shown her distress about the future throughout the film but in her words in her letter read to Bark ‘Oh Bark that home for the aged is so dreary and dismal’.
I have concentrated on the old woman as I have in other blogs. The other characters in the film are as interesting in the way that they illustrate family relationships and generational differences. Also the strength and compassion of the old woman plays a big role in this sad but true to life film. There are online many articles, essays and analyses praising this film so relevant even today. Women still live longer than men, families are dispersed further apart – even across continents – , life styles are very different between the generations, social provisions are not adequate. Unless ageing parents have always been part of an extended family, or have the financial means and forethought of planning for their old age, a sudden change in circumstances puts enormous stress on families.