Combustible Celluloid
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With: Victor Moore, Beulah Bondi, Fay Bainter, Thomas Mitchell, Porter Hall, Barbara Read, Maurice Moscovitch, Elisabeth Risdon, Minna Gombell, Ray Mayer, Ralph Remley, Louise Beavers, Louis Jean Heydt, Gene Morgan
Written by: Viña Delmar, based on a novel by Josephine Lawrence, and a play by Helen Leary, Noah Leary
Directed by: Leo McCarey
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 92
Date: 05/07/1937

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Parent Gap

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Of all the comedians and comedy filmmakers who tried to make the switch to serious stuff, Leo McCarey (1896-1969) was perhaps the most graceful. McCarey started out in the silent era as one of the original creative forces behind Laurel & Hardy. In the sound era, he directed the best Marx Brothers movie, Duck Soup (1933), the Charles Laughton comedy classic Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), and an entertaining Harold Lloyd picture, The Milky Way (1936). In 1937, he made the screwball comedy classic The Awful Truth and helped make Cary Grant a star. Incredibly, he won an Oscar for Best Director for that film, but when he accepted the statue, he gratefully thanked the Academy and then added: "you gave it to me for the wrong picture."

He was talking about Make Way for Tomorrow, which was his first real transition to drama. He went on to great success and more Oscars for films like Love Story (1939), Going My Way (1944), The Bells of St. Mary's (1945), My Son John (1952), and An Affair to Remember (1957), but Make Way for Tomorrow remained his personal favorite. It has been very nearly a "lost" film for years. Hardly anyone saw it upon its release, and it has never -- to the best of my knowledge -- turned up on VHS, or laserdisc or DVD until now. Now Criterion Collection releases it in a gorgeous DVD package worthy of its movie.

McCarey made the film just after the death of his father, and in that moment, he made perhaps the greatest American film about old age. And, as Peter Bogdanovich points out on his video interview extra, the film has only become more relevant as the issue of what to do with our elderly only becomes more troublesome. Victor Moore (who was the comic sidekick to Fred Astaire in Swing Time) and Beulah Bondi star, in heavy makeup, as Barkley ("Bark") and Lucy Cooper, the aged couple about to lose their house. They have five grown children, many with families of their own, but between them, they can't spare the money to save the house, or spare the room to put their mother and father up. It is decided that son George (Thomas Mitchell) will take Ma, while daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon), who lives some 300 miles away, will take Pa.

Of course, the parents quickly make nuisances of themselves in their children's homes. "Bark" imagines he can get a job and start over with a new place to live, but George soon comes to realize that moving his mother into a home for the aged is the only answer. The sequence in which he tries to tell her -- and she tries to spare his dignity -- is one of the most heartbreaking (and gloriously subtle) ever filmed. Meanwhile, "Bark" gets sick and it is decided that he will move out to California to stay with the fifth child, a sister we never see.

"Bark" and Lucy are reunited for one evening in the city before they are to be separated, and here McCarey buoys the film with an almost joyous half hour. In this sequence, the Coopers finally find their place. Several strangers treat them with a kindness that their own children cannot muster. He realizes that the old couple is tenderly, genuinely in love, which may have perhaps been the hardest thing of all for American audiences to contemplate. (Isn't love only for the young?) In one scene, "Bark" tries to kiss his wife, but she refuses, too shy; she looks over her shoulder at the camera, the audience, watching. It's perhaps the most overt example of how McCarey brings the audience inside his films, rather than preaching to them or claiming to be superior to them.

The movie ends with a whimper, without hope or sadness, and just basic, sad acceptance (it looks forward to Yasujro Ozu's Tokyo Story). Indeed, the entire movie is made without sentiment or even blame. Clint Eastwood touched upon this issue in Gran Torino, but paints the offspring as ungrateful brats. Here, the grown children come across as entirely human, dealing with an impossible issue and coping the best they can. McCarey creates an impossibly delicate balance here, finding drama and compassion in individual everyday moments, rather than constantly foreshadowing to some terrible conclusion. It's almost realistic, or as realistic as a 1930s Hollywood studio production can get.

This leads us to the question of the film's disappearance. It's very easy to jump to the defense of a "lost" film like this one and blame the cowardly people who did not have the strength to see it or appreciate it, but that's too easy. It's also too easy to suggest that, if more people saw this movie, the problem of the aged would be solved. No, this is a troubling issue for any of us, and it's asking a lot to get people to see a movie about it, when they'd much rather forget their troubles. Let's just say that, in calling Make Way for Tomorrow a masterpiece, we'll also call it a dear movie, a wonderful movie, a refreshing movie, or an honest movie. Maybe those terms will make it a bit more appealing.

Criterion's beautiful, much-appreciated 2009 DVD comes with a 20-minute interview with Bogdanovich, a 20-minute interview with critic Gary Giddins, and a liner notes booklet with essays by critic Tag Gallagher and filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, and an excerpt from film scholar Robin Wood's 1998 piece "Leo McCarey and Family Values." A 2015 Blu-ray preserves the quality, and all the extras, of the DVD, but including a beautiful high-def picture and an uncompressed monaural soundtrack.

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