Thursday, March 12, 2015


As much as there have been more beautiful and talented
actresses in American films in the past hundred years, the
greatest “clip” of a cinema performance is, for me, the closing
moments of now-largely-forgotten masterpiece Make Room
For Tomorrow (Paramount, 1937) in which Beaulah Bondi,
playing Lucy Cooper, says farewell to her husband Barkley,
played by Victor Moore, at Grand Central Station.

Leo McCarey, the director of this film,  was one of the titans
of the early film industry, and made some of the most  popular
films of both the silent and sound movie periods. He put Stan
Laurel and Oliver Hardy together, and made their silent films.
He directed the Marx Brothers in their biggest film Duck Soup.
A devout Irish Catholic, his Going My Way and The Bells of St.
Mary’s were some of the biggest “blockbusters” of the
pre-World War II era. He won two Academy Awards for best
director. In Hollywood, he was a giant among other household
names. And today, he is mostly unknown, except by die-hard
movie buffs of past cinema.

I am discovering that this phenomenon is not uncommon in
the contemporary culture in America. We see the“forgetting”
of great masters and great works in classical music, painting,
sculpture, philosophy, fiction and poetry. The reasons are
complicated, and have political overtones, as well as purely
cultural ones.

In the case of McCarey, it is perhaps primarily political. One of
the few political conservatives in Hollywood in the 1920s and
1930s, McCarey testified before the congressional committee
investigating communist influence in the film industry after
World War II. Senator Joseph McCarthy and then-Senator
Richard Nixon became liberal villains in the 1950s for their
role in this period, although history and irrefutable evidence
has made it clear that “red” influence was rampant in both
Hollywood and the U.S. government. (Alger Hiss was both a
liar and a traitor, although some liberals still hold onto the
unsupportable belief that he was innocent), and the federal
government bureaucracy was filled with actual members of 
the Communist Party and apologists for Soviet dictator
Joseph Stalin. McCarey disagreed with communism, and
said so, but his testimony was distinctive in that he only
stated his own views, and did not point his finger to anyone
else in the film industry.

(Joe McCarthy, in particular, was a reckless and mean-spirited
man, and accused some who were innocent. His insinuations
about World War II Allied commander General George
Marshall, later U.S. secretary of state and author of the
Marshall Plan, were particularly heinous. For his excesses,
he was eventually rightly condemned by the U.S. senate, but
the fact remains that communist influence was widespread in
the U.S. in the 1930s and 1940s. (Perhaps the most dangerous
instance was the circumstance that in 1940, Henry C. Wallace
was elected vice president of the U.S., and came within a few
months of becoming president in 1945 on the death of
President Franklin Roosevelt. Wallace was not a communist,
but openly sympathized with Stalin and many communist
policies. In 1944, wary Democratic leaders insisted to the
then-dying Roosevelt that he replace Wallace on that year’s
presidential ticket. The result was a new, and then unknown,
vice president, Harry Truman.  Truman became president
only days after he was sworn in. It is now a widely accepted
view that the post-World War II period would have been much
different and disadvantageous to the U.S. and the free world
if Wallace had been president.

Many in Hollywood, like Leo McCarey who were not liberal
were culturally “blacklisted” by most critics in the period after
the 1970s. Many ‘left-wing” actors and directors had ironically
been blacklisted in the 1950s and 1960s, some of them very
unfairly, but now the critical cultural establishment in
Hollywood, New York and Washington, DC, turned the tables,
and did some cultural persecution of their own (something
which continues to this day against conservatives under the
rubric of “political correctness”).

By the 1990s, however, younger critics, unburdened by
bias and retribution, began to “rediscover” some of the
great figures of the earlier era. The film Make Way for
Tomorrow is a classic case of this. This work now appears on
virtually all lists of “best” movies of all time, and deservedly
so. To be fair, the neglect of this movie was not just caused by
politics, but also by its pre-war styles and by its lack of
iconic Hollywood stars in its brilliant cast.

While I hope that any reader who has not seen this truly great
movie will now do so (it’s available on DVD), I began this piece
with only a clip from the film, its ending. Actress Beaulah Bondi
is standing on the platform at Grand Central Station in New
York, having only moments before said presumably a final
good-bye to her aging husband as he boarded the transcontinental
train to California where he will now live with their daughter.
There is no room for her there, and she must remain behind
in an “old person’s home.” They spoke to each other of reuniting
later, but she (and the audience) knows she will not see him
again. In spite of having five children, none of them is willing,
or probably able, to provide a home for both of them together.
It is the Depression of the 1930s. Social security has been enacted,
and in effect, but is controversial and will not begin payouts to
American seniors until several years later. (Conservative McCarey,
always a humanist in real life and in his films, has made perhaps
the greatest cinematic argument ever for social security and
compassion for the aging.)

But this closing clip, and the film, is much more than a argument
for caring about and for senior citizens. It is beyond liberalism
and conservatism, beyond  politics, beyond Hollywood, beyond
mere film criticism. As Beaulah Bondi waves good-bye to her
husband, now moving away in the train compartment, she utters
no dialogue. The brave and loving smile on her face, meant for
her departing lifetime companion, slowly and extraordinarily
changes to a look of profound and terrified confusion. There is
not a word of dialogue. It is not a happy Hollywood ending

Many say they cannot help but cry during this film and its
ending. But the face we see at the conclusion of this film is a
cinematic mirror that is far beyond mere politics and mere tears.

Copyright (c) 2015 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

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