In the cinema of Leo McCarey, the act of socializing takes on paramount importance. The rhythms of his films, and the way that they make meaning, largely derive from his direction of actors and from the characters’ behavior toward one another within the fiction — the ways that they look at, listen and react to one another. McCarey began his career in silent comedy, working with people like Charley Chase and Laurel and Hardy, and his impressive feeling for physical gestures (and even bodily restraint) certainly shaped his direction of great comic performances in the sound era, such as Charles Laughton in Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) or Cary Grant in The Awful Truth (1937). Within McCarey’s social worlds, perhaps the highest and most sacred form of socializing is that of marriage. In two of McCarey’s finest films, The Awful Truth and Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), married couples become separated for different reasons, and the matrimonial relationship at the heart of his cinema becomes tested by external circumstances.
The Awful Truth is justly regarded as one of the greatest screwball comedies, but unlike some other classics of the genre, such as Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938) or La Cava’s My Man Godfrey (1936), its comedy doesn’t arise from a relatively normative, buttoned-up character being confronted with and ultimately attracted to a wilder, freer, kookier character, as the Katharine Hepburn character functions in Baby. Rather, The Awful Truth belongs to the subgenre of (as Stanley Cavell puts it) “the comedy of remarriage,” in which a couple on the brink of divorce separates only to find their relationship strengthened and regenerated by the end of the film. Irene Dunne and Cary Grant’s Lucy and Jerry Warriner are fairly evenly matched in comic prowess and in their attempts to one-up each other by dating other people, which are really just thinly guised attempts to get one other’s attention. The pleasure of the film, aside from its amazingly funny jokes and gags, comes from its relatively serious and profound underpinnings: this is a work that ultimately affirms the power of marriage in glorious and even religious ways. As Dave Kehr wrote in his Chicago Reader capsule review, “The awful truth is that they need each other, and McCarey, with his profound faith in monogamy, leads them gradually and hilariously to that crucial discovery.”
When McCarey won the Oscar for Best Direction for The Awful Truth, he said in his acceptance speech, “Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture.” He was of course referring to Make Way for Tomorrow, his brilliant and very sad film about the plight of an elderly couple, played by Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi. If Make Way for Tomorrow and The Awful Truth can be seen as twin masterpieces, both made by McCarey in the same year and both intensely romantic films dealing with a marriage in separation, then Make Way can be seen as the tragic, negative inversion of this scenario. At the start of the film, the couple loses their home to the bank during the Depression, and subsequently separate, going to live with two of their children in different parts of the country with plans to reunite as soon as possible. As each of them discovers that they don’t quite fit in with their children’s and grandchildren’s daily lives (in a scenario which anticipates Ozu’s Tokyo Story), they also find that the length of time they must endure without each other becomes much longer than they had anticipated. Whereas The Awful Truth affirms the power of reunion and offers a joyous vision of monogamy restored, Make Way shows us the cruelty of a couple, deeply in love, forced to spend the last days of their lives apart. Orson Welles said it was “a film that could make a stone cry.”
Though Make Way for Tomorrow can be seen as an incredibly cruel film in its gradual unveiling of the bitterest human truths, in McCarey’s hands it also remains a deeply tender and moving romance. The film’s wise and fragile romanticism comes to the fore in a climactic sequence in which both characters are finally permitted to reunite, though only fleetingly. They share a perfect day together in New York City (the place they had spent their honeymoon many decades before), dance at the old hotel they once stayed at, and even permit themselves to get a bit drunk together. As the waves of emotion in this extraordinarily human film reach a crescendo, Bondi recites a poem to her husband, one that they had both known and cherished for many years, which begins:
A man and a maid stood hand in hand;
bound by a tiny wedding band.
Before them lay the uncertain years
that promised joy and maybe tears.
“Is she afraid?” thought the man of the maid.
“With you,” said the maid, “I’m not afraid.”
The first time I saw this film, it was in the screening room at University of Chicago’s Doc Films, via a slightly weathered 16mm film print. The crowd was sparse that night, but at this point in the film I looked around, and everyone in the darkened auditorium was in tears. I spoke with someone after the screening, whom I had never met before, about how beautiful and moving the film was, which neither of us had seen before. Moments like these are why I love the moviegoing experience.
IU Cinema also screened McCarey’s classic An Affair to Remember in 2017.
Both The Awful Truth and Make Way for Tomorrow are available on home video from the Criterion Collection.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He graduated from Indiana University with a BA in English, and currently resides in Chicago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.