A septuagenarian couple are parted before death, cast away in the cruel twilight of their lives. Leo McCarey directs one of the most heartbreaking dramas churned out by the Hollywood system, delivering a bitter ending instead of a saccharine infected confection.
Ma and Pa Cooper have been married for 50 years but their future is uncertain when the bank forecloses on their home. They call a family meeting and reluctantly explain the situation. The children, now grown and self-sufficient, must decide what to do with their parents. Since none are able to take them both they must go separate ways, supposedly for a short period of time. McCarey divides the American nuclear family into individual elements, examining the impact upon the parents, their grown children, and the trickle-down effect to the grandchildren. Ma is depicted as a genial but nosy protuberance, her good intentions always getting in the way. Her presence creates a matriarchal conflict within the family structure, and an implosion becomes imminent. Pa is staying with another child 300 miles away, and relegated to the couch, a purgatory of loneliness in a household of shame. His daughter is condescending and domineering, and treats him like a child. The film shows the turmoil of role reversal when elderly parents must assume the role of dependants to their own children.
One scene in particular stands out: during a bridge meeting Ma takes a call from her husband. She has been a nuisance most of the night and she begins talking very loud into the phone (as older people are wont to do) and the party stops, unable to concentrate. What at first seems bothersome becomes funny, until the sadness in her voice becomes evident: frozen in time, the entire group watches in quiet gloom as understanding settles into their hearts. It’s very convincing because it’s a sullen truth conveyed through fiction that weeps with compassion.
The elderly parents have a brief rendezvous before Pa is sent to California, and they spend their final hours together wandering the streets of New York, so different from their memories, until they discover the hotel where they spent their honeymoon. Here they are honored guests, a place where strangers listen to their stories and see to their needs, a stark contrast to their own children‘s treatment. When the time comes, they part once and for all on a train platform, two lives going in opposite directions. There optimism masks the fact that they believe the next time they meet will not be in this life.
Final Grade: (A)