— Orson Welles on Make Way for Tomorrow
By John Cochrane
No one film dominated the 1937 Academy Awards, but with the country still in the grips of the Great Depression and slowly realizing Europe’s inevitable march back into war, the subtle theme of the evening in early 1938 seemed to be distant escapism — anything to help people forget the troubled times at home. The Life of Emile Zola, a period biopic set in France, won best picture. Spencer Tracy received his first best actor Oscar, playing a Portuguese sailor in Captains Courageous, and Luise Rainer was named best actress for a second year in a row, playing the wife of a struggling Chinese farmer in the morality tale The Good Earth.
Best director that year went to Hollywood veteran Leo McCarey for The Awful Truth. McCarey’s resume was impressive. He paired Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy together as a team, and he had directed, supervised or helped write much of their best silent work. He had collaborated with W.C. Fields, Charley Chase, Eddie Cantor, Mae West, Harold Lloyd, George Burns and Gracie Allen — almost an early Hollywood Comedy Hall of Fame. He had also directed the Marx Brothers in the freewheeling political satire Duck Soup (1933) — generally now considered their best film. The Awful Truth was a screwball comedy about an affluent couple whose romantic chemistry constantly sabotages their impending divorce that starred Irene Dunne, Ralph Bellamy — and a breakout performance by a handsome leading man named Cary Grant — who supposedly had based a lot of his on-screen persona on the personality of his witty and elegant director. Addressing the Academy, the affable McCarey said “Thank you for this wonderful award. But you gave it to me for the wrong picture.”
The picture that McCarey was referring to was his earlier production from 1937, titled Make Way for Tomorrow — an often tough and unsentimental drama about an elderly couple who loses their home to foreclosure and must separate when none of their children are able or willing to take them both in. The film opened to stellar reviews and promptly died at the box office — being unknown to most people for decades. Fortunately, recent events have begun to rectify this oversight as this buried American cinematic gem turns 75 years old.
Based on Josephine Lawrence’s novel The Years Are So Long, the film opens at the cozy home of Barkley and Lucy Cooper (Victor Moore, Beulah Bondi), who have been married for 50 years. Four of their five children have arrived for what they believe will be a joyous family dinner — until Bark breaks the news that he hasn’t been able to keep up with the mortgage payments since being out of work and that the bank will repossess the property within days. Bark and Lucy insist that they will stay together, regardless of what happens. With little time to plan, the family decides that, for the time being, Lucy will move to New York to live with their eldest son George’s family in their apartment, while Bark will be 360 miles away — sleeping on the couch at the home of their daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon) and her unemployed husband Bill (Ralph Remley). For the film's first hour or so, we see Bark and Lucy trying to adjust to their new surroundings. While George (an excellent Thomas Mitchell) tries to be as pleasant and accommodating to his mother as possible, his wife Anita (Fay Bainter) and daughter Rhoda (Barbara Read) display little patience and dislike the disruption of their routines. Meanwhile, Bark spends his time walking around his new hometown, looking for a job and visiting a new friend, a local shopkeeper named Max Rubens (Maurice Moscowitz).
Many filmmakers develop a visual signature that dominates their work, but McCarey employs a fairly basic and straightforward style, using group and reaction shots as well as perceptive editing that places the emphasis on the actors and the story. Working with screenwriter Vina Delmar, McCarey creates set pieces that blend touches of light comedy and everyday drama that feel so correct and truthful that audiences likely feel a sometimes uncomfortable recognition with them. Often, this stems from McCarey's use of improvisation to sharpen his scenes before filming them. If short on ideas, he would play a nearby piano on the set until he figured out what to do. This practice creates a freshness that, as Peter Bogdanovich points out, gives the impression that what you’re watching wasn't planned but just happened. A large part of the film’s greatness also comes from the cast, headed by Moore and Bondi as Bark and Lucy. Both theatrically trained actors, vaudeville star Moore (age 61) and future Emmy winner Bondi (age 48), through the wonders of make-up and black and white photography prove completely convincing as an elderly couple in their 70s.
Moore performs terrifically as the blunt, but loving Bark. Bondi gives an even better turn as Lucy. In one scene, representative of McCarey’s direction and Bondi’s performance, Lucy inadvertently interrupts a bridge-playing class being taught by her daughter-in-law at the apartment by making small talk and noticing the cards in players’ hands. She’s an intrusion, but by the end of the evening, after being abandoned by her granddaughter at the movies and returning home, she takes a phone call in the living room from her husband. Critic Gary Giddins notes that as the class listens in to her side of the conversation, she becomes highly sympathetic — and the scene now flips with the card students visibly moved and feeling invasive of her space and privacy. Then there’s the crucial scene where Lucy sees the writing on the wall and offers to move out of the apartment and into a nursing home without Bark’s knowledge, before her family can commit her — so as not to be a burden to them anymore. She shares a loving moment with her guilt-ridden son George. (“You were always my favorite child,” she sincerely tells him.) His disappointment in himself in the scene’s coda resonates deeply. Lucy’s character seems meek and easily taken advantage of when we first meet her, but she’s really the strongest person in the story. It’s her love and sacrifice for her husband and family that give the movie much of its emotional weight, and the unforgettable final shot belongs to her.
McCarey and Delmar create totally believable characters and it should be pointed out that while friendly, decent people, Bark and Lucy, by no means, lack flaws. Bark doesn't make a particularly good patient when sick in bed two-thirds of the way through the story, and Lucy stands firm in her ways and beliefs — traits that can annoy, but people can be that way. Even the children aren’t bad — they have reasons that the audience can understand — even if we don’t agree with their often seemingly selfish or preoccupied behavior. This delicate skill of observation was not lost on McCarey’s good friend, the great French director Jean Renoir, who once said, “McCarey understands people better than anyone in Hollywood.”
As memorable a first hour as Make Way for Tomorrow delivers, McCarey saves the best moments for the film’s third act. Bark and Lucy meet one last time in New York, hours before his train departure for California to live with their unseen daughter Addie for health reasons. For the first time since the opening scene, the couple finally reunites. The last 20 minutes of the picture overflows with what Roger Ebert refers to in his Great Movies essay on the film as mono no aware — which roughly translated means “a bittersweet sadness at the passing of all things.” Regrets, but nothing that Bark and Lucy really would change if they had to do everything over again.
Throughout the story, the Coopers often have been humiliated or brushed off by their children. When a car salesman (Dell Henderson) mistakes them for a wealthy couple and takes them for a ride in a fancy car, the audience cringes — expecting another uncomfortable moment — but then something interesting happens. As they arrive at their destination and an embarrassed Bark and Lucy explain that there’s been a misunderstanding, the salesman tactfully assuages their concerns. He allows them to save face, by saying his pride in the car made him want to show it off. Walking into The Vogard Hotel where they honeymooned 50 years ago, the Coopers get treated like friends or VIPs — first by a hat check girl (Louise Seidel) and then by the hotel manager (Paul Stanton), who happily takes his time talking to them and comps their bar tab. Bark and Lucy's children expect their parents at George’s apartment for dinner, but Bark phones them to say that they won't be coming.
At one point, we see the couple from behind as they sit together, sharing a loving moment of intimate conversation. As Lucy leans toward her husband to kiss him, she seems to notice the camera and demurely stops herself from such a public display of affection. It’s an extraordinary sequence that’s followed by another one when Bark and Lucy get up to dance. As they arrive on the dance floor, the orchestra breaks into a rumba and the Coopers seem lost and out of place. The watchful bandleader notices them, without a word, quickly instructs the musicians to switch to the love song “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” Bark gratefully acknowledges the conductor as he waltzes Lucy around the room. Then the clock strikes 9, and Bark and Lucy rush off to the train station for the film’s closing scene.
Paramount studio head Adolph Zukor reportedly visited the set several times, pleading with his producer-director to change the ending, but McCarey — who saw the movie as a labor of love and a personal tribute to his recently deceased father — wouldn’t budge. The film was released to rave reviews, though at least one reviewer couldn’t recommend it because it would “ruin your day.” Industry friends and colleagues such as John Ford and Frank Capra were deeply impressed. McCarey even received an enthusiastic letter from legendary British playwright George Bernard Shaw, but the Paramount marketing department didn’t know what to do with the picture. Audiences, still facing a tough economy, didn’t want to see a movie about losing your home and being marginalized in old age. They stayed away, while the Motion Picture Academy didn’t seem to notice. McCarey was fired from his contract at Paramount (later rebounding that year at Columbia with the unqualified success of The Awful Truth), and the film seemed to disappear from view for many years.
The movie never was forgotten completely though. Screenwriter Kogo Noda, who wrote frequently with the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, saw the film and used it as an inspiration for Ozu’s masterpiece Tokyo Story (1953), in which an elderly couple journey to the big city to visit their adult children and quietly realize that their offspring don’t have time for them in their busy lives — only temporarily getting their full attention when one of the parents unexpectedly dies during the trip home. Ironically, Ozu’s film also would be unknown to most of the world for decades, until exported in the early 1970s, almost 10 years after the master filmmaker’s death. Tokyo Story, with its sublime simplicity and quiet insight into human nature now is considered by many critics and filmmakers to be one of the greatest movies ever made — placing high in the Sight & Sound polls of 1992 and 2002. In the meantime, Make Way for Tomorrow slowly started getting more attention in its own right, probably sometime in the mid- to late 1960s. Although the movie never was released on VHS, it occasionally was shown enough on television to garner a devoted underground following. More recently, the movie played at the Telluride Film Festival, where audiences at sold out screenings were stunned by its undeniable quality and its powerful, timeless message. Make Way for Tomorrow was finally was released on DVD by The Criterion Collection and was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress on the National Film Registry in 2010.
The funny phenomenon of how audiences in general dislike unhappy endings, and yet somehow our psyches depend on them always proves puzzling. Classics such as Casablanca (1942), Vertigo (1958), The Third Man (1949 U.K.; 1950 U.S.) and even the fictional romance in a more contemporary hit such as Titanic (1997) wouldn't carry the same stature or mystique in popular culture if they somehow had been pleasantly resolved. Life often disappoints and turns out unpredictably, messy and frequently filled with loss. Even though many people claim they don’t like sad stories, it comforts somehow to know that we aren’t alone — that others understand and feel similarly as we do about life’s experiences. It’s what makes us human.
Make Way for Tomorrow serves as many things. It’s a movie about family dynamics and the Fifth Commandment. Gary Giddins points out that it’s also a message film about the need for a safety net such as Social Security — which hadn't been fully implemented when the picture was released. It’s a plea for treating each other with more kindness — in a culture that increasingly pushes the old aside to embrace the young and the new, and it’s one of the saddest movies ever made. At its most basic level, it’s a tender love story between two people who have spent most of their lives together — knowing each other so well that words often seem unnecessary. However you choose to look at it, Make Way for Tomorrow remains one of the greatest American films — certainly a strong contender for the best classic Hollywood movie that most people have never heard of. Leo McCarey would create highly successful hits that were more sentimental later on in his career — including the enjoyable romance Love Affair (1939) and its subsequent color remake An Affair to Remember (1957), starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. He also would direct Bing Crosby as a charismatic priest in 1944’s Going My Way (7 Oscars — including picture, director, actor) and its superior sequel, 1945’s The Bells of St. Mary’s (8 nominations, 1 win), co-starring Ingrid Bergman, but he never forgot about Make Way for Tomorrow, which remained a personal favorite until the day he died from emphysema in 1969. Leo McCarey did not live to see his masterpiece fully appreciated, but that wasn't necessary. In 1938, he knew the film’s value.
It’s a marvelous picture. Bring plenty of Kleenex.