I finally watched the saddest movie of the entire 1930’s, now that it’s been recommended by every film critic everywhere and given a shiny new video release by Criterion, and I’m glad to discover that it has more in common with McCarey’s other movies (Ruggles of Red Gap, The Awful Truth) than with, for instance, Mizoguchi’s cinema of constant sorrow. Just because it’s a movie about a penniless elderly couple being separated and passed around by their middle-aged siblings who won’t make time in their lives for mom & dad doesn’t mean it can’t be fun to watch.
The couple walks in front of a projection screen:
As the Great Depression was wearing off, there were enough eager young unemployed workers around that nobody had to hire retirement-aged old men, so Barkley Cooper (Victor Moore, Fred Astaire’s buddy in Swing Time) finds himself unemployable and loses his house. His mortgage agent at the bank was a rival for the affections of Barkley’s wife Lucy (Beulah Bondi, Fred MacMurray’s mom in Remember the Night) fifty years ago, finally getting his sweet revenge. So the parents gather four of their five kids (the fifth has moved out west) and explain the situation.
L-R: George, Robert, Cora, Nellie:
Robert (Ray Mayer, played a character called Dopey in the Astaire/Rogers movie Follow the Fleet) somehow avoids taking any responsibility, and the husband of Nellie (Minna Gombell, widow of the murdered Thin Man) forbids her from inviting mom and dad into the house, “I married you, not your parents.” The others claim not to have enough room, so forbidding Cora (Elisabeth Risdon of High Sierra, The Roaring Twenties) takes the dad while weak-willed George (Thomas Mitchell, played Doc Boone in Stagecoach) takes his mother.
Louise Beavers as Mamie, one of many times she’d play a Mamie or Mammy, another being Holiday Inn:
Crazy thing about the 1930’s that familes can act like they are so underpaid, just barely getting by, but still employ a black housekeeper. Most of the rest of the movie follows the mother at George’s house, quickly getting on the nerves of his wife Anita (Fay Bainter, oscar-nominated for playing a homeless mother the following year in White Banners) and daughter Rhoda. Anita teaches classes in bridge at her house, and has as little compassion as the mother has a sense of when it’s inappropriate to start telling rambling stories, so it’s not going well. It’s going even worse for the dad, though, who spends his days with awesome shopkeeper Max (Maurice Moscovitch of Love Affair) because Cora is an intolerable bitch. Nobody cares what the parents want, so they never get to see each other anymore.
Dad can’t find work and the kids can’t put up with this any longer. The new plan is to ship Dad off west with the fifth kid, claiming it’s for his health, and to put Mom in an old folks’ home, which she has visited and has told everyone it seems like a terrible place. The parents are wise to these plans, each figuring out that they’re being shuttled away because they have become inconvenient, but they put on a happy face for their last few hours together, walking the streets as a couple before the farewell dinner with the kids. Suddenly their fortunes turn, and everyone in the city is being nice to them. They enjoy a lovely dinner at the hotel where they’d spent their honeymoon, and then say goodbye at the train station, the kids belatedly discovering that they’d been abandoned. It’s all terrible the way the parents are being treated, but when Mom wonders what had gone wrong, she blames her own parenting. “You don’t sow wheat and reap ashes.” It’s all quite depressing, but skillfully written to also be entertaining without becoming a nonstop weepie.
Ellen Drew of Christmas In July in an early role as a theater usher, with George’s daughter Rhoda:
Outside the movie theater. Souls at Sea got three oscar nominations in ’38 and McCarey’s The Awful Truth got six, including a win for best director. No love for this film, however, which was McCarey’s own favorite.