Harry & Tonto: DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
- What is the function of the first sequence of the film? (scenes 1-5). In other words, how do those scenes provide a context for what follows in the film?
- Throughout the film there are numerous allusions to Shakespeare’s King Lear. In that play the king steps down from his throne and resolves to divide his kingdom into three parts—one for each of his daughters. Two of the daughters declare (falsely) their love and respect of the old man. But the third refuses to make a grand expression of her love for him—and he angrily banishes her. He suffers through time spent with each of the first two daughters. Lear, forlorn and hopeless, wanders the heath and rages against the storm. His third daughter, Cordelia, raises an army and invades England—is briefly reunited with her father (and is reconciled to him), and then Cordelia is hanged in prison and Lear, broken-hearted, dies soon afterward. What resonance to the story of King Lear do you see in the story of Harry Coombs?
- One critic referred to Harry Coombs as a “connoisseur of the human condition.” What evidence of that characterization do you see in the film?
- Can you remember times when Harry lost his temper in the film? What did these scenes reveal about his character?
- Why was Harry’s having a cat for a pet, instead of a dog for a pet, a perfect complement to his character?
- In scene 27 Harry is reunited with an old flame, Jesse Stone. What did Harry gain from this interaction? In what way did it close a circle in his life? What did the hitchhiker Ginger gain from watching their interaction?
- Several times in the film Harry reminisces about his late wife, Annie. How do these scenes provide insight into his character and values? Why don’t we see him talking about his late wife with the people he encounters?
- There are really two basic scenes in the film beginning with sequence two: scenes where Harry is visiting with his three children and scenes of Harry on the road (to Chicago, and later, to Los Angeles). How do these scenes play off one against the other? What is being resolved in each set of scenes?
- There are two prominent deaths portrayed in the film. What is their function in the film?
- Did you detect any pattern in Harry’s interactions with authority figures in the film? For example: the police trying to evict him, the woman at the morgue (scene 14), the airport security folks (scene 16), and the greyhound bus driver (scene 19).
- Here are the main players in Harry’s life in the film. In each case, analyze the basis of Harry’s relationship to these individuals (or types).
Old friends: Analyze the role of these old friends in Harry’s life.
- Police trying to evict him
- Jacob Rivetowski
New friends: Analyze Harry’s secret for making new friends.
- Norman (his grandson)
- Ginger (hitchhiker)
Family. Analyze the dynamics of Harry’s relationship with each of his three
children. Why can’t Harry live with any of his children? I know the
thought has occurred to you: if Harry is such a special and magical character,
then why have his children turned out the way they turned out
Here is a list of the people Harry Coombs interacts with (other than friends and family members). Most of the people below are strangers—a few have become acquaintances. Do you discern any patterns to his interactions with other people? What does Harry bring to each interaction? What attracts people to Harry Coombs—and vice-versa?
- Jesus, the grocer (scene 2)
- An old woman he meets when we see him enter the building (scene 4)
- The landlady in the apartment building—when Harry is looking for a new place (scene 12)
- The old man who waves Burt and Harry down and asks for a handout (scene 13)
- The taxi driver at the airport (scene 17)
- The old guy on the bus (scene 18)
- Trader Nick (scene 20)
- The African American family in Fort Wayne (scene 26)
- The old traveling salesman (scene 32)
- The sultry hooker (scene 35)
- The middle-aged compulsive gambler (scene 37)
- The American Indian, Sam Two Feathers (scene 39)
- Anatol, the old guy with the beret in Santa Monica (scene 43)
- The chess player, a middle-aged guy, who talks philosophy with Harry (scene 43)
- The cat woman (scene 44)
- The little girl on the beach (scene 45)
Here are some quotes—the wisdom of Harry Coombs—as they appear in the film. Which of these quotes means the most to you? Why?
- It’s all run down. It all runs down sooner or later” (scene 5)
- “You know people—that’s home” (scene 5)
- “That’s life. An old man loses his home, and he’s just a wanderer” (scene 7)
- “Doesn’t matter how old a man is. He needs his privacy.” (scene 11a)
- “Oh, we had good times. Maybe I thought there wasn’t enough time or enough money. On the other hand, there
really was.” (scene 22)
- “I have a great fear of pain. I would rather go—like that—rather
than suffer for a long time. Oh, how Annie suffered. Her suffering was worse than her
dying. I dreaded seeing her in the morning. She never complained. That was my specialty.
You never really feel anybody’s suffering—you only feel their death.”
- “I guess I don’t know what it’s like to be 16 these days.”
- “I’ve had a wonderful life.” (scene 25d)
- “The times change and we change with it.” (scene 28b)
- “The strangest thing about being old is that all your friends
are dead” (scene 29f)
- “Life is confusing. We’re just trying to get
on with it” (scene 31)
- “Man has to struggle, or he’ll drown in the river.” (scene 43)
Film resource written by Robert E. Yahnke
Copyright, Robert E. Yahnke, © 2009
Professor, Univ. of Minnesota
Request permission from the author to reprint this resource--for educational use only