This is the story of an elderly man, Harry, traveling across the country with Tonto, his equally elderly cat. It is about learning to accept—and even enjoy—life’s inevitable changes. It is my all-time favorite movie and one of Art Carney’s best performances which earned him an Academy Award back in 1974. Our local TV channel was showing it recently on a gloomy Sunday afternoon, and I settled in to watch it once again.
Harry, 72, is a widower, a retired professor living alone in a New York City apartment with Tonto. Harry’s world turns upside down when his apartment building is torn down. He fights his eviction and has to be carried out by the police, but he begins to accept life’s changes soon after when his friend dies. They shared an easy comradery every afternoon on a park bench. “So long, Kiddo,” he sadly says to his friend lying alone in the city morgue.
I understand Carney did not like cats, but got comfortable with the ones playing Tonto. He says Harry’s affection for Tonto was probably his best acting performance. And Carney was very shy. He said Ed Norton, the character he is most noted for, was his total opposite.
Harry is invited to live with his son’s family in New Jersey, but he can see the strain he is causing in their cramped home, so he decides to build a new life for himself in California.
Airline security wants to take Tonto from him, so he bolts from the airport and begins an impromptu odyssey by bus, car, and hitch-hiking. A long the way he meets a succession of odd characters that he accepts with wisdom and tolerance. All are metaphors for the continuing changes in life that must be accepted and, with the right attitude, can even be enjoyed. He stops to visit with another son and daughter who are both dealing with their own failures in life, and, poignantly, to see his first love, a once professional dancer now deep into dementia in a nursing home and confused about who he is (played by Geraldine Fitzgerald). In a heartbreaking scene, they share one final dance together in the nursing home’s crowded activity room.
In the summer probably right after Penn State graduation, I hitch-hiked to Kansas City to visit Dave Hall who was living with his aunt and uncle while enrolled at the University of Kansas. My still-vivid impression remains of how time accelerates for the long-distance hitch-hiker. I went from the heights of exaltation to the depths of despair and back again several times each day, swings in mood that would take weeks in normal life. And the people I met in each encounter would quickly break away and disappear from my life forever.
Just as Harry arrives in Malibu, Tonto dies, a metaphor for Harry’s eventual death, that he acknowledges with another heartfelt, “So long, Kiddo,” as he accepts one more of life’s losses.
The film ends on a happy scene that hints of Harry settling into a new life with new friends, including a New York City expatriate widow who loves cats. They meet on a bench by the beach, and she will clearly become the replacement for his old friend in New York.
Many times over the years I have enjoyed Harry’s indefatigable positive attitude that can find meaning and enjoyment in almost any situation. But my wife was having a bad day with her health, and for the first time, and to my surprise, I found the movie too painful to watch. I am not yet ready.