Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
Director: Leo McCarey
Cast: Victor Moore, Beulah Bondi, Fay Bainter
Synopsis: An elderly couple are forced to separate when they lose their house and none of their five children will take both parents in.
WARNING! This review contains SPOILERS!
Like its director Leo McCarey, Make Way for Tomorrow is largely forgotten today. Back in the 1930s McCarey was one of Hollywood’s biggest directors who, like Hitchcock and Capra, often saw his name placed above a movie’s title. Heavy drinking and right-wing tendencies which saw him testify against colleagues before the HUAC Committee eventually damaged McCarey’s career, while Make Way for Tomorrow, which found favour with the critics, left depression-era audiences cold. In fact, it’s a testimony to McCarey’s unrivalled influence at the time that Make Way for Tomorrow, with its focus on the plight of the elderly and a resolutely downbeat ending, ever got made at all.
The story centres around husband and wife Barkley (Victor Moore) and Lucy Cooper (Beulah Bondi), a couple on the verge of celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary who find themselves evicted from their home after failing to meet the mortgage payments. The movie opens with the couple summoning four of their five adult children to that home to break the news. Their kids’ reaction is sympathetic but nervously reserved as the offspring realise that their formerly independent parents have suddenly become a burden to them. Due to reluctance on the part of some to take the couple, George (Thomas Mitchell), their oldest son, offers to take his mother in, while Cora (Elisabeth Risdon) grudgingly agrees to look after their father — but only while Nellie (Minna Gombell) works on getting her husband (Porter Hall) to agree to take on both parents.
It’s not long before the strain begins to show, however. Lucy means well; she’s a timid soul, but wants to look after her son and socialise with his friends and those of her young granddaughter Rhoda (Barbara Read). But her disruptive ways are met with polite tolerance by the pupils of her daughter-in-law’s (Fay Bainter) bridge classes and results in Rhoda’s friends staying away, and Rhoda subsequently falling in with undesirables. Meanwhile, Barkley’s failing health proves to be a troublesome burden on Cora which prompts her to try and offload him onto her (unseen) sister in California.
Make Way for Tomorrow has no star names to speak of, relying instead on a roster of familiar character names, suggesting the focus is more on an examination of its character rather than a plot-driven story. This might mean that the film’s plot is too rambling and lacking in incident for many, but for those who stick with it, Make Way for Tomorrow offers a rewarding — and deeply affecting — pay-off. Its subject matter is timeless, and the opening epigram as relevant today as it undoubtedly was in 1937. It’s also ripe for over-sentimentalising, but McCarey keeps the emotional element refreshingly understated, a judicious decision that makes the final scenes truly heart-breaking. There are no tears or histrionics as Barkley and Lucy say their goodbyes, but each knows that the five hours they have spent together after months apart are probably the last that they will ever spend together. But, instead of ending with floods of tears or declarations of undying love, the movie’s last shot shows Lucy standing alone on a railway platform and wearing a confused, bewildered expression as she waves goodbye to her husband of fifty years. That’s not just good writing — and acting — it’s great.
What makes that ending all the more powerful is the sequence before it in which we see Barkley and Lucy spending a few brief hours alone together in the City. They enjoy a ride in a fancy automobile and revisit the hotel in which they spent their honeymoon, and it’s only during this sequence, away from their children, that we really get an insight into the dynamics of their relationship, of their deep abiding love for one another, and of their inner feelings. Until this sequence they have been portrayed largely in terms of the changes their presence wreaks on their children’s lives, but we now realise that they are each intelligent, thoughtful and reasoning individuals with hopes and wishes of their own.
Make Way for Tomorrow is a slight film with a lot of charm and a shrewd eye for the righteous justifications grown children can use to avoid their responsibilities. Its message is ably put across by an accomplished cast — particularly Moore and Bondi, who both play characters much older than themselves — and it contains insightful scenes of quiet devastation that might not have you reaching for the hankies, but will certainly have you thinking about your relationship with your own parents or children.
(Reviewed 13th July 2013)