Appellate Judge Tom Becker would like to call you "Sweetheart."
"When you're 17, and the world's beautiful, facing facts is just as
slick fun as dancing or going to parties. But when you're 70, well, you don't
care about dancing, and you don't think about parties anymore. And about the
only fun you have left is pretending that there ain't any facts to face. So
would you mind if I just kind of went on pretending?"
"Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture."
That was director Leo McCarey receiving his Oscar for the 1937 classic comedy, The Awful Truth. McCarey had made another film that year, one that had met with little success at the box office, but almost universal praise from critics as well as other filmmakers. That film, Make Way for Tomorrow, was in McCarey's mind his best work that year, and he was right. Arguably, it was his best work ever. Inarguably, Make Way for Tomorrow is one of the most humane and poignant American films ever made, and why more than 70 years after it was released it is still something of an obscurity is nothing short of a cultural crime.
Criterion does this long-overdue title justice with a fine DVD release.
Facts of the Case
Bark Cooper (Victor Moore, Swing Time) and his wife, Lucy (Beulah Bondi, It's a Wonderful Life), are an elderly couple who can no longer afford their home. When the bank comes to take it over, they meet with four of their five grown children (the fifth lives across the country, in California) to discuss what they can do. The Cooper offspring are blindsided—their parents have known about this for months, but put off doing anything because they hoped something would happen to save them. Now, they and their children have to scramble.
Since none of the younger Coopers has the means to take both parents, it's decided that Bark will move in with daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon, Reap the Wild Wind) and her husband, and Lucy will stay with son George (Thomas Mitchell, Stagecoach), his wife Anita (Fay Bainter, Jezebel), and their college-age daughter, Rhoda (Barbara Read, The Road Back) in their apartment in New York City, hundreds of miles away. Everyone is hoping that daughter Nellie will be able to convince her husband to take in both parents so the Coopers can finish out their lives together.
Unfortunately, taking care of their parents is even more trying than the younger Coopers expected. It's particularly difficult for Anita, who wants to do right by her mother-in-law, but is increasingly frustrated by the old woman. Bark is adjusting a bit better, but he's still a burden on his daughter.
Then Cora gets an idea that her father's health might benefit if he went to live in a warmer climate—like California, where the fifth Cooper child is. But will Bark and Lucy be able to make the trip together?
In a Hollywood that's been youth-obsessed since its genesis, it's a wonder a film like Make Way for Tomorrow, with its themes of aging and displacement, ever got made. What's no wonder, unfortunately, is that despite its quality—its script (by Viña Delmar), directing, and performances are exceptional—Make Way for Tomorrow failed miserably at the box office. In the midst of the Depression, when people went to movies to forget their troubles, this beautiful but sobering film was a hard sell, and even today, it might have trouble finding an audience. Its aged protagonists were facing real problems, and not in cute and cuddly ways. These people weren't ever-flowing fonts of wisdom (or at least aphorisms), and their futures were far more bleak than the ones faced by oldsters in even more recent films, like On Golden Pond. This film is as honest and compelling today as it was 75 years ago, and its emotional resonance hasn't diminished in the intervening decades.
In lesser hands, Make Way for Tomorrow could have been a turgid "weepie." The story would likely have been told simplistically, with Ma and Pa Cooper a sickly sweet pair of seniors at the mercy of their selfish, unfeeling children and an ending involving either death or triumph.
Instead, Director Leo McCary—no stranger to sentiment—dispatches with the easy clichés and movie-isms, giving us a beautiful, heartfelt work with a minimum of contrivance and artifice. In this world, there are no villains, just well-intentioned people trying—not always successfully—to cope with challenging, no-win circumstances. Far from being a mawkish '30s melodrama, Make Way for Tomorrow is an emotionally honest, deeply affecting look at aging, changing, and the sometimes unfair curveballs life throws at us.
The opening scene, in which the parents gather the children to tell them the bad news, plays almost like a comedy, with little jokes and twists sprinkled throughout. McCarey disarms us with this slightly askew, slightly disquieting introduction. He throws us again with the scenes that follow of Lucy living with George and Anita, where we find it's Anita, not Lucy, who's having difficulty adjusting to the new living arrangement—and understandably so. Anita is kind and patient with her mother-in-law, but it's clear that her tolerance is being stretched thin. Lucy is certainly not a saint—meddlesome, restless, and a bit insensitive, she's exactly what you'd expect of someone whose world has been upended at this late stage of her life. We still sympathize with her, but we empathize with Anita. Bainter, one of the finest character actresses of her day, is outstanding as the increasingly stressed Anita. She and Bondi have a terrific scene when tensions finally boil over.
Bondi's performance as Lucy is remarkable. The actress was in her 40s when she played this character, who's in her 70s, and never once do we suspect that this is a young woman playing old. Bondi doesn't succumb to the usual actor tricks of making the character seem more appealing. This is a wonderfully nuanced and natural portrayal of a displaced, elderly woman.
Victor Moore was known primarily as a comic actor, and while Make Way for Tomorrow showcases him in a dramatic role, he also gets a number of comedic scenes with Risdon. He is harder to deal with than Lucy, more pointedly quarrelsome and disagreeable, but he is more desperate than she is. Throughout, he attempts—somewhat pathetically—to find work. Moore brings tremendous dignity to this portrayal of a man life has passed by and whose only wish—to be able to provide for his wife in her old age—seems heartbreakingly elusive.
In the final third of the film, Lucy and Bark meet in New York for the first time since they've been separated. They walk, they reminisce, and they try to make sense of how they ended up in this place. There is no bitterness, just bewilderment, Lucy wondering if she somehow failed as a wife and mother ("You don't sew wheat and reap ashes"), Bark acknowledging his failure to do better as a provider.
On a whim, they visit the hotel they'd stayed at on their honeymoon, 50 years before. For a brief, magical interlude, time almost stands still, and the couple gets a respite from the sad realities they are facing, like a pair of Cinderellas at an impromptu ball. This might be one of the most beautifully sustained and poignant half hours in the history of American film, with the interplay between Bondi and Moore so tender it's almost painful to watch. Their final scene is simply devastating.
Criterion deserves credit for merely rescuing this gem from obscurity. Typically, they turn out a wonderful disc. While the picture is not pristine—there's quite a bit of grain in the pictureboxed image as well as some occasional softness—it's still solid work and probably as good as this film from 1937 is going to look. Audio is good for this dialogue heavy film, though occasionally the soundtrack overmodulates a tad. Optional English subtitles are accessible from the remote.
This is one of Criterion's less-expensive titles—under $30—and while the disc is not brimming with extras, what we get is excellent. "Tomorrow, Yesterday, and Today" is an interview with Peter Bogdanovich that opens with the writer/director repeating Orson Welles' quote about Make Way for Tomorrow—"It could make a stone cry"—and if you watch this supplement after viewing the film, you'll know exactly what he means. While Bogdanovich interviews and commentaries have become commonplace on DVDs, there's no arguing that the man loves his movies and brings tons of information, trivia, and insight to the table. Incidentally, Besides Welles, Make Way for Tomorrow counted among its admirers John Ford, Frank Capra, Jean Renoir, and Yasujiro Ozu, whose Tokyo Story was inspired by McCarey's film.
The only other video supplement is a 20-minute interview with critic and writer Gary Giddins, who offers some political and social context on the film as well as a nice overview of McCarey's career. While he's not exactly forgotten, McCarey's reputation has not endured the way many of his contemporaries has. McCarey won two Oscars for directing (The Awful Truth and Going My Way) and was responsible for teaming Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy. Among his classic productions are Duck Soup, Belle of the Nineties, Ruggles of Red Gap, The Milky Way, The Kid from Spain, The Bells of St. Mary's, and Love Affair, which he remade 20 years later as An Affair to Remember.
A 32-page booklet features a trio of incisive essays, one by film writer Tag Gallagher, another, more personal one, by Director Bertrand Tavernier, and an excerpt from Robin Wood's book Sexual Politics & Narrative Film, from the chapter "Leo McCare and Family Values."
An exquisite, haunting masterpiece of American cinema, Make Way for Tomorrow gets an unqualified recommendation. This is courageous, exemplary filmmaking. See it.
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