Certain movies are like the dinosaurs: it’s hard believing they existed and realizing they did. I don’t use this analogy disparagingly, more as a means of emphasizing how special Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow truly is. In our cinematic landscape where turning 35 is practically the end of one’s career, a movie about two elderly people having to live separately would never work today. McCarey’s tender ode to the everlasting bonds of love doesn’t care if it works or not, simply content to tell the story. Make Way for Tomorrow tells an intimate story about our own emotions and failures, while at the same time giving us a romance that, in this day and age, is the fantasy.
Barkley and Lucy Cooper (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi) have been married for fifty years. But when the bank forecloses on their house, none of their five grown children can house them both. Bark goes to live with daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon) while Lucy goes with son George (Thomas Mitchell). Unfortunately, the children’s own lives butt heads with their needy parents leaving them to decide that the couple should be separated.
I was told “Make Way for Tomorrow will destroy you” and that’s no joke. McCarey taps into life’s harsh realities without hammering them home or preaching. The movie is sentimental but never saccharine. Had the actors been too melodramatic the audience would see their problems as nothing more than a soap opera. Outside of a large opening text crawl, McCarey’s visuals tell a story that doesn’t possess any fate, clocking at a little over 90-minutes.
From the minute we meet Barkley, Lucy and the children, McCarey’s script economizes the exposition. We’re privy to what we need to know based on first impressions. Barkley and Lucy are devoted to each other; George is the responsible one; Cora and Nellie (Minna Gombell) are at their husbands’ mercy; Robert (Ray Mayer) is the irresponsible one, and the absent Addie…well, you know the type of child she is. Each one has avoided responsibility for their parents for a multitude of reasons and are forced to reconcile their personal lives with their parents new-found helplessness.
Neither Bark nor Lucy desire the new set of circumstances as much as their children. It’s evident relying on their children to care for them marks the end; the transition to their final stage of life. These are two able-bodied people, spry for their age, unable to keep up with the times in more ways than one. The house kicks off their excision from the modern world, literally casting them outside their comfort zone into a brave new world that’s too fast, too loose, and too modern for them to compete in. Refusing to bend, Bark continuously goes into any store sporting a “help wanted” sign, his chances dashed due to his age and failing eyesight. By the end, when the two say their goodbyes for what will probably be the final time, Bark refuses to capitulate to the truth. He will find a job; he just has to!
The film stock may be black and white, but McCarey’s script refuses to be so clear-cut. You understand every characters’ motivation and feelings, even if you disagree with them. Each of the children – outside of the ever absent Addie – has reasons for resenting their parents, and despite their rudeness it comes from a comprehensible place. Lucy and Bark don’t wish to be burdens, but their constant chattering and illnesses are part and parcel of being old. Each person knows their resentment isn’t appropriate, such as Cora’s refusal to let Bark drink soup cooked by another woman. “They’ll think we aren’t feeding you.” George’s wife Anita (Fay Bainter) doesn’t intend to be mean but is frustrated at Lucy’s constant mixing; Anita’s daughter, Rhoda (Barbara Read) finds the old woman embarrassing and old-fashioned. None of these reactions come from a malicious place but are the consequence of disparate generations living together. I identified after living with my great-grandmother for several years and my reactions were somewhat in line with Anita and crew. There are moments of love between the couple and their children; Lucy’s moments with Rhoda are especially poignant as she elaborates on the transition from reality to fantasy with age and what those meanings indicate.
Lucy’s words ring true: “…when you’re seventy…the only fun you have left is pretending that there ain’t any facts to face.” The film’s third act is nothing short of a masterpiece, a balletic piece of wistful fantasy where the past, for a glittering moment, comes to the front and Bark and Lucy find the respect they’ve dreamed of. On their final night together before Lucy goes to a home and Bark leaves for California, they recreate their honeymoon, going to the hotel where they spent it. Everyone is kind and respectful to them. The world slows down with the hotel’s walls. The fun comes from pretending “there ain’t any facts to face;” that this will be their final moment of love and togetherness. We’re left outside the phone booth as Bark talks to Nellie, the least sympathetic child.. What Bark says is unimportant; it is George’s sad confirmation that they’re horrible in their own ways that leaves the lasting impression. The essay accompanying the latest Criterion edition examines McCarey’s emphasis on the couple and how children are their ruination presents a compelling thesis alongside the finished product.
Bark and Lucy are iconic characters and Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi’s bravery in the face of separation staves off sentimentality and melodrama. When these two are reunited, they act like teenagers. As mentioned in one of the Criterion essays these moments are so intimate the audience feels as if they’re intruding on something private. When Lucy tells Bark she loves him in answer to his question, it almost plays like a whispered ad-lib, as if Bondi herself was wrapped up in the moment. The brunt of Moore’s interactions are with a local shopkeeper, Max Rubens (Maurice Moscovitch). Their relationship plays like Frankenstein’s monster and the blind man in the hut; both seek companionship from those closest to them in spite of others who refuse to interact with them and pass by.
I’m more well-versed in McCarey as a comic director, and this is my first foray into his dramatic work, of which he was just as revered. Make Way for Tomorrow is a beautiful film that leaves you smiling through your tears.
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