On March 10, 1938, Leo McCarey accepted his Academy Award for Best Directing and kindly thanked his audience before stating that they gave him an award for “the wrong picture.” McCarey had won for The Awful Truth (1937), the brilliant Cary Grant/Irene Dunne screwball romantic comedy. McCarey was a talented comedy director and no doubt deserved the award (and it’s hard to imagine anybody today winning an Oscar for directing a comedy), but he was equally deserving of the award for directing a more personal and less conventional film that very same year, Make Way For Tomorrow.
A film beloved by cinephiles and filmmakers as a sincerely moving emotional experience (Orson Wells reportedly said that Make Way For Tomorrow would make a stone cry), it still remains one of few Hollywood films that concerns itself seriously with the lives of senior citizens. But it also represents the incredible range of an underrated filmmaker, which can be seen most evidently by the fact that he directed a great romantic comedy and a great adult drama in the very same year.
The Artist as Cog in a System
McCarey’s range I believe points to something largely overlooked when thinking about Classic Hollywood. The typical narrative for the studio system is that business was and continues to be the priority over talent and creativity, and that profitability and originality are mutually exclusive. While such a history is quite obviously reductive and simplistic, there did indeed exist a potentially stultifying degree of excessive control on behalf of the studios: directors were given assignments, stars and actors were contractually beholden to one studio exclusively, and exhibitors rarely had a choice of what to play.
But within this stratified system also arose unique artistic expression. The studio system arguably acted as a “drawing restraint” for many filmmakers working with the limited range of a given palette, and the studio system’s speed of production often lent to, at least in retrospect, interesting signifiers of style (like the urgent social realism of Mervyn LeRoy’s work across genre). While famous classic Hollywood filmmakers like John Ford often worked almost exclusively in one genre, most of the directors of 1930s Hollywood were individuals assigned with a range of different types of pictures to bring to screen, and within this range often emerged what can only be described something resembling an authorial personality. In the case of McCarey, it’s an enduring humanism and a palpable faith in people. McCarey’s work often portrays people who hurt each other (the grown children of Make Way For Tomorrow, the competing jealousies tearing the couple of The Awful Truth apart), but his view is hardly pessimistic as his films are ultimately punctuated with an often open-ended reflective meditation on a perceived inherent kindness within human beings
The popularization of the auteur theory has, within the practices of the industry, created a marketable system of overt associations between the individual director and their associations with genre and style. While the auteur theory in its inception reflected upon implicit shared themes across a body of work, it has functioned in the last fifty years more evidently in terms of a self-realizing truth. Directors, like movie stars, create a persona through their work. What’s interesting about the old studio system’s industrial mode of production is looking back at films and filmmakers who didn’t reflexively operate under this current paradigm. While it’s easy to find the connective thread between the films of venerated filmmakers like Ford or Howard Hawks, with your talented and celebrated but more typical and less well-known directors-for-hire the thread is often more interesting and less definite. It’s difficult to surmise what the Academy thought of or looked for when they bestowed a Best Director Oscar as the position (while still important) did not possess the myth surrounding it that it does today. But most of McCarey’s work represents one of those great Hollywood tales of an individual who worked within and arguably because of the system, as opposed to the romantic David and Goliath narrative of the artist making great work despite it.
After All, It’s the 30s
A common historic wisdom (I’m a-knockin’ down myths today!) of Depression-era Hollywood is that audiences wanted escapism and only escapism during the 1930s. The Awful Truth was likely the more celebrated film then and now as it was and is the more accessibly popular (being a hilarious comedy with a big movie star). But, possibly in a revelation of a characteristic McCareyism, upon closer examination The Awful Truth and Make Way For Tomorrow seem in terms of their basic skeletal structure to be the exact same movie: both are, after all, about a couple that must deal with an indefinite distance and ultimately have a brief reunion which leaves many questions unanswered. In fact, as The Awful Truth concerns itself almost exclusively with the comedic trials and tribulations of the wealthy socialites (as are many of Grant’s comedies of this period), it is more obviously “classed” than Make Way For Tomorrow if for nothing more than representing the extreme polar opposite of the conditions of its escape-seeking inferred audience.
While The Awful Truth is indeed an “escapist” screwball flick, Make Way For Tomorrow isn’t explicitly about the depression. At its center, the film does indeed find a family struggling as a result of the patriarch and matriarch’s inability to keep their house because of no work in old age, but their sons and daughters are comfortably in the middle to upper-middle class and much of their activities are defined by leisure. But while the film’s setting doesn’t exactly make Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” echo in one’s head, the corresponding sentiment is there. Make Way For Tomorrow is not on its surface a political work, but examined as a piece of history in a certain time and place it becomes a story about an America before the New Deal and Social Security.
When one thinks of not valuing one’s elders, the current generation comes to mind moreso than previous ones. After all, many media images of the past find extended families interacting happily together, especially in work made before the great mid-century dispersal of suburbanization. Make Way For Tomorrow suggests anti-loyal tensions between generations are far more universal and timeless than we think, and as a work of Depression-era Hollywood it shows conditions of the elderly so heartbreaking that the State ultimately had to intervene where family wouldn’t or couldn’t.