Any time I run across a list of movies people probably haven’t seen but should, one title I look for is the Catholic director Leo McCarey’s forgotten humanist masterpiece Make Way for Tomorrow.
Make Way for Tomorrow was released in 1937, the same year for which McCarey won his first Best Director Academy Award for the screwball comedy classic The Awful Truth starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunn. Not many filmmakers would feel ambivalent about winning their first Oscar, but McCarey accepted his statuette with reservations: “Thanks,” he told the Academy, “but you gave it to me for the wrong picture.”
Best known to Catholics today for his iconic works of religious populism, Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of Saint Mary’s (1945), starring Bing Crosby as the affable Father O’Malley, McCarey worked nearly all his career in comedy. He gave the world the comic duo Laurel and Hardy, worked with many of Hollywood’s greatest comic talents (Mae West, W.C. Fields, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Harold Lloyd), and directed probably the Marx Brothers’ best and funniest film, Duck Soup (1933).
But the film McCarey always considered his best work, perhaps correctly, was his most notable non-comedy, Make Way for Tomorrow. Although hailed by critics and fellow filmmakers as a great achievement, the heart-wrenching subject matter was too tragic and close to home for Depression-era audiences, and flopped at the box office. To this day it is revered by filmmakers and cinephiles, but nearly unknown even to fans of classic cinema.
The story is simple, pragmatic, and unflinching. An elderly couple who have enjoyed fifty years of marriage and raised five children have fallen on hard times, and the bank has foreclosed on their house. “You’d be more than welcome with any of us,” George (Thomas Mitchell) assures them when Barkley and Lucy (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi) break the news to their grown children. Yes, of course. But with whom?
One, the couple’s younger daughter Nellie (Minna Gombell), promises to take them both in, but must first talk it over with her husband. Two other siblings are willing, but each has space for only one of the parents — a temporary measure, everyone agrees. Lucy initially demurs: “Your father and I always thought that no matter what we’d always be together.” But there is no choice. In the end, Lucy goes with George and his wife Anita (Fay Bainter), sharing a bedroom with her granddaughter Rhoda (Barbara Read), while Bark accepts a couch at the house of their daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon).
Everyone has good intentions. When the children first learn of their parents’ economic plight, George ventures that if only they had known, the children could have all chipped in for a smaller, more affordable place for their parents. Yes, in theory. The reality is that each of the children faces their own economic hardships, and Rhoda will be going to college soon … no, it would have made no difference.
There is a generous humanism in McCarey’s work that embraces flawed characters and allows few villains. Bark and Lucy’s children and their spouses aren’t terrible people; it’s just that they have their own lives to live. And it must be admitted that putting up even one of the parents really is a hardship — at times, the movie is honest enough to admit, even a nuisance.
Lucy wants to feel helpful around the house, but her efforts rankle her daughter-in-law Anita, who wants to run her own household. You can’t blame Lucy’s granddaughter Rhoda’s friends for not coming over any more now that Rhoda’s bedroom is shared with a lonely, garrulous old lady. Nor can you blame Rhoda for being home less herself, nor Anita for feeling that she’s losing her daughter over her mother-in-law’s presence.
Bark, meanwhile, feels the traditionally male burden to be the provider, and keeps looking for work despite his advanced years. “Were you a bookkeeper?” someone asks when he inquires about work in that field. “I am a bookkeeper!” he protests indignantly.
In a pair of standout scenes, we watch Lucy on the phone with Bark in George and Anita’s living room where Anita is teaching a bridge class, then see Bark having a letter from Lucy read aloud to him by a friend, an affable Jewish shopkeeper Max (Maurice Moscovitch). These moments are painful because of the compromised intimacy of a man and a woman who should be going to sleep and waking up together as they have all their lives, whose private communion with one another is now cruelly mediated and exposed to uncomfortable witnesses.
Lucy tends to talk a bit too loud on the phone, and the bridge class is silenced by her inconsequential chatter, perhaps half annoyed, half moved by the obvious difficulty the old woman is having saying “Goodbye” and hanging up.
Max’s reading of Lucy’s letter (Bark says he’s broken his glasses) becomes awkward when he reads the words “this is just between us.” Then, with increasing disbelief, he reads Lucy’s account of Nellie taking her to visit an elderly acquaintance at a home for elderly women — a dreary place, Lucy says, adding that Nellie kept saying how lovely it was, which at first Lucy supposed was to cheer up the elderly resident, until Nellie kept saying it after they left. “‘So I guess she really thought it was lovely,’” Max reads, aghast that Lucy hasn’t drawn the obvious inference.
Perhaps Lucy understands better than she lets on. Although she continues to talk hopefully about Bark finding work, she responds with sad frankness to Rhoda’s blunt advice to “face facts” by remarking that “facing facts” is a very different thing at 70 than at 17. At Lucy’s age, “about the only fun you have left is pretending there ain’t any facts to face…so would you mind if I just kind of went on pretending?”
In his “Great Movies” essay on “Make Way for Tomorrow,” Roger Ebert writes:
The fact is, old people don’t fit in the modern lifestyle. The fault is with the lifestyle, but there you have it. In traditional societies, families often lived in the same house, children taking over as their parents passed on. In my life and in my family I’ve seen this, but you don’t see it much anymore. “Seniors” in TV ads are tanned, fit and sexy, playing golf, happy they planned for their futures. If they’re not struck by lightning on the golf course, they’ll grow old and sick, health costs will melt away their savings, and they’ll end up living in a “home” … The happy stars of the Seniors ads from the 1990s aren’t so photogenic today.
Eventually, “for now” turns into something more permanent. Bark and Lucy will be going their separate ways for good, probably never to see each other again. And here Make Way for Tomorrow takes an unexpected turn — one that ensures that the ending, while it may be sad, is not merely depressing.
In the last act, for a few hours on their last day together, Bark and Lucy briefly rebel against their children’s plans and go their own way. It begins as a sort of lucky accident. Happiness knocks, and initially they start to turn away out of sheer force of old habits. Then a subversive thought occurs to them: Why not?
What follows is one of the most memorable and romantic dates in cinematic history. Turning their backs on the looming dismal future, the couple immerse themselves in their shared past.
Ebert liked to quote a line from Susan Sarandon’s character in Shall We Dance to the effect that one reason people marry is that we want “a witness to our lives.” I think of it in a slightly different way.
Our lives appear to us as a story: a story that we tell ourselves about our past, act out in the present and script for ourselves into the future. To share one’s life with someone, then, is to embark on a daring creative venture in shared storytelling. To marry is to say: Let us make of our two lives one story, a story that I will tell to you and you will tell to me. Telling and retelling that story — reminiscing about shared experiences, especially the happy or funny ones — is one of the secrets of happy couples, studies tell us.
On their last date Bark and Lucy reflect on how they met and where they went on their honeymoon. Bark has always delighted in the fact that Lucy chose him over another man she had been dating — a man who became a banker, and ultimately foreclosed on their house. “He got my house, but I got his girl,” Bark crows. They don’t necessarily remember all the details exactly the same way (was it on a Wednesday or a Thursday?), but it doesn’t matter.
Make Way for Tomorrow opens with a reflection on the unbridgeable gap between generations, concluding with the words of the fourth commandment, “Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother.” Ironically, although Bark and Lucy haven’t been honored by their children as they should, on their last date they receive the honor due to their venerable years and long life together from many other people they meet.
Even here, our couple aren’t idealized, and don’t idealize themselves to each other. Bark frankly admits that he considers himself a failure as a provider, and Lucy sees their children’s selfishness as evidence of her own shortcomings: “You don’t sow wheat and reap ashes.”
At least they raised their children well enough to ultimately recognize their own failure. Phoning the children to say they won’t be home for the planned family dinner, Bark finally confides to his daughter an awful truth that, tellingly, McCarey doesn’t let us hear. In the end, George concludes that their parents probably want to be alone for their last goodbye. To Nell’s objection that if they don’t see their father off, their parents “will think we’re terrible,” George bluntly replies, “Aren’t we?”
“Oh my God, that’s the saddest movie ever made!” Orson Welles famously exclaimed to Peter Bogdanovich when Make Way for Tomorrow was mentioned. “It would make a stone cry!” Watch it and weep. And then, for God’s sake, if your parents are still alive, call or visit them, and ask yourself what you can do for them that you aren’t doing already.
Make Way for Tomorrow has been restored and remastered in high definition for the Criterion Collection Blu-ray. There are two bonus features, a pair of interviews recycled from the 2010 Criterion DVD: Bogdanovich talks about McCarey and the making of Make Way for Tomorrow, and critic Gary Giddens discusses the film in its context in history and in McCarey’s life and career.
A 16-page booklet includes photos, essays on the film by Tag Gallagher and Bertrand Tavernier, and an excerpt from film scholar Robin Wood in which he argues that Make Way for Tomorrow, like other McCarey films, exalts the couple at the expense of the family.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.