In his Oscar-winning acceptance speech for 1937’s The Awful Truth, director, Leo McCarey sincerely thanked the Academy, adding “…but you gave it to me for the wrong picture.” Indeed, McCarey’s hopes had been pinned on his ‘other’ contribution from that year – Make Way for Tomorrow; a movie McCarey’s esteemed contemporary, Orson Welles once referred to as “the saddest movie ever made. It could even make a stone cry.” There is something to Welles’ claim, likely the reason audiences stayed away in droves. In fact, Make Way for Tomorrow is the picture that ended McCarey’s association with Paramount Pictures. Adolph Zukor (who had not wanted to make the movie in the first place, but had acquiesced to McCarey’s insistence to do it, then endeavored to have him shoot an alternative ‘happy’ ending, which McCarey absolutely refused to do) fired McCarey immediately following the picture’s premiere after it became obvious it would not continue his uninterrupted winning streak of hits. The critics were clouded in their assessments, praising the picture’s truthfulness while condemning its downtrodden theme. Alas, McCarey was to receive something no fixed dollar amount could provide: prestige and even more cache to write his own ticket at any studio of his choosing. His contemporaries rallied around Make Way for Tomorrow as a formidable artistic achievement. No less an authority on the contemporary drama than imminent playwright, George Bernard Shaw praised it as a masterpiece.
With due deference to Welles and a nod to the critics, Make Way for Tomorrow is undeniably a sorrowful examination of the generation gap, inspired with a sort of affecting immediacy that has not dated and – tragically – seems even more apropos with the passage of time. If anything, aging in America has become an even sadder affair in the intervening decades. Certainly, in her later years, the great Katherine Hepburn referred to aging as both ‘idiotic’ and ‘hopeless’. What saves the picture from becoming depressing is McCarey’s inimitable understanding of people; also, his incredibly frank and unapologetic view of the generation gap, non-judgmental and utterly void of virtually any cynicism or condemnation of either side. Make Way for Tomorrow is perhaps the truest evocation of the inevitable realities about growing old in a culture that devalues the inherent wisdom acquired or, at least in the movies, is often grotesquely sentimentalized as befuddling and quaint.
Arguably, Make Way for Tomorrow is McCarey’s only attempt at seriousness. Virtually all his masterpieces (particularly1939’s Love Affair and its 1957 remake, An Affair to Remember) seem to effortlessly pivot on a moment when light-hearted comedy gives way to drama and tragedy. Yet, in hindsight there is nothing in McCarey’s failed law career to suggest he should have excelled in his new chosen profession in the movies; writing and directing virtually all of Laurel and Hardy’s silent hits for Hal Roach. In the early sound era, McCarey expanded his repertoire, working with great comedians like Eddie Cantor, the Marx brothers and Mae West. He is, in fact, credited with ‘creating’ the persona we think of today as Cary Grant; Grant, severely reluctant to work under McCarey’s method of improvisation and, at one point, begging Columbia Studios head, Harry Cohn to be relieved of his commitment on The Awful Truth. Somewhere along the way, Grant must have been inspired. After all, he made three more pictures with McCarey.
Only in hindsight does it become more startling clear how much of a departure Make Way for Tomorrow is from McCarey’s other movies, and how very unlike it remains from most anything made in Hollywood, then or now. Apart from the fact the picture has virtually no stars it also approaches a subject taboo in the movies – old age. To be certain, character actors of every age, shape and size were present and accounted for, particularly during Hollywood’s golden age. But the elderly were not the subject of the story and certainly never its central focus. Arguably, Make Way for Tomorrow’s most ‘famous’ name talent is character actor, Thomas Mitchell (cast as favorite son, George Cooper), appearing in Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon the same year and on a lightning streak by the end of the decade, prominently featured in Stagecoach, Gone With The Wind, Only Angels Have Wings, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – all of them made in 1939!
Undeniably, McCarey’s aces in the hole are Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore, each playing at least twenty years more than their respective years on the screen. Moore was a beloved comedian from Vaudeville and a favorite of McCarey’s; frequently cast as the bumbling and mystified buffoon. There is, to be sure, an element of this in Make Way for Tomorrow; particularly when Moore’s Barkley Cooper stubbornly refuses to obey a doctor’s (Louis Jean Heydt) orders during an examination, while being ‘nursed’ by his unrepentant and stern daughter, Cora (Elisabeth Risdon). Yet, on the whole, Moore’s interpretation of this emasculated ‘head of the family’, forced on hard times to feel like a burden to his family, is void of caricature. In fact, it ranks as one of the all-time great accomplishments ever put on film, second only to Beulah Bondi’s richly satisfying performance. It is one of Hollywood’s ironies Bondi, diminutive though plainly attractive, was frequently cast as elderly frumps even as a young woman. Her Lucy Cooper is a sublime portrait of a kindly and forthright matriarch accepting of her fate, to be sent to a state home for the elderly. What is inconceivable, is that she must make this transition alone, without her beloved husband at her side.
Make Way for Tomorrow is based on Josephine Lawrence’s novel, Years are So Long; an even darker portrait of aging that ends with Barkley’s death and Lucy’s inability to accept it. The movie spares us this morbidity, Viña Delmar’s superb screenplay concluding on one of the most unvarnished and yet thoroughly poignant farewells in cinema history; also, a decided note of ambiguity as Lucy follows Barkley’s train pulling from the station, a look of utter bewilderment afflicting her otherwise hopeless gaze. Can this really be the end to fifty odd years of marriage? Delmar’s concision, her ability to amalgamate the novel’s themes, seemingly without changing anything, while maintaining fidelity to its spirit is miraculous. The great tragedy in Make Way for Tomorrow is Barkley and Lucy’s children fail to acknowledge the similarities between themselves and their parents; McCarey understatedly illustrating this point during the couple’s penultimate reunion in New York – five whole hours dedicated to a blissful fairytale in which they rediscover their own spark of youth, ably abetted by a benevolent car salesman, Ed Weldon (Dell Henderson), the manager of the Vogard Hotel, Mr. Horton (Paul Stanton) and bandleader, Carlton Gorman (Gene Morgan) who, noticing the couple on the dance floor, shifts the tempo of his orchestra from a frenetic rumba to the more congenial ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart’ waltz. McCarey gives us Lucy and Bark’s guarded moments of affection, leaning in for a rosy kiss before suddenly realizing they are in plain view, withdrawing into blushed bashfulness.
In retrospect, McCarey endeavored to make Make Way for Tomorrow during one of the bleakest hours of his own life; recovering from a virulent bout of food poisoning after drinking some unpasteurized milk on the set of his 1936 screwball comedy, The Milky Way – starring silent great, Harold Lloyd. In the interim, during his recovery, McCarey’s father also passed away. In some ways, Make Way for Tomorrow is McCarey’s homage to a beloved patriarch. In pursuing a writer for the project, McCarey ran a few movies scripted by Viña Delmar whose work he greatly admired. However, unbeknownst to McCarey, he had already met Delmar socially and had, in fact, made something of an off-color pass at the attractive 27 year old; rejected outright in his amorous pursuits. Delmar, however, did not hold a grudge and McCarey would later suggest she was the wittiest screenwriter with whom he had the good fortune to collaborate.
McCarey’s modus operandi on the set was a little unsettling to virtually everyone except Delmar, ever-present for rewrites and fine tweaking of scenes. Frequently, McCarey would suspend rehearsals and even his shoot, casually toddling off to a piano (always present on a McCarey set) to tickle the ivories until inspiration took hold once more. It served McCarey’s ambiguous cinema style well. From a purely visualized perspective, there is nothing flashy about any McCarey picture; the camera arbitrarily moving to keep the action in frame and in focus. However, McCarey’s approach to improvisation lends an air of immediacy to this action; also, a sense of contagious spontaneity. This humanizing liberalism (McCarey suggesting kindness be the pursuit of all humanity) remains the nugget of truth and vein running through virtually all of his movies. The fascination for McCarey is the Cooper family unit; how it functions – or perhaps, is dysfunctional – yet remains intact in all its affliction and biases.
Two scenes in particular bear the exquisite fruits of both Delmar and McCarey’s labors; the first, during a bridge lesson/party at George and Anita’s (Faye Bainter) apartment; the well-heeled and immaculately attired assemblage in stark contrast to Lucy’s dowdy and homespun appearance as she quietly sets herself in Barkley’s creaky rocking chair at the opposite end of the room. The telephone rings and Anita informs Lucy Barkley is on the other end. McCarey pivots this scene on the pretext Lucy is a mild nuisance intruding on their space as she speaks loudly into the receiver with careworn affection and mild concern. Interestingly, McCarey sets his camera across the crowded room, only briefly intercutting to a frontal close-up on Lucy; the elegant party attendees mildly put off by her disturbance – at first. However, within a few brief moments, McCarey manages to shift our empathy (and perhaps even our shame) inward; Lucy’s enduring warmth for Bark striking a sentimental chord. This resonates guilt throughout the entire ensemble, now completely in Lucy’s corner; the audience’s empathy transferred along with theirs. It remains the movie’s monumental moment of understated pathos.
The second moment to illustrate Delmar and McCarey’s symbiotic genius happens when Thomas Mitchell’s George, always regarded as ‘the good son’, gently informs his mother (at the behest of his wife) he intends to usher her off to a state home for the elderly (presumably, for her own good, though really, more for the selfish preservation of his marriage). In some ways, Beulah Bondi’s reaction to this news is identical to the farewell she shares with George and Anita’s domestic, Mamie (Louise Beavers); a sense of complete acquiescence and forgiveness; gratefulness even for having known their ‘kindness’. Interestingly, McCarey never points a finger and yet we sense both Mamie and George recognize they are not nearly as faultless as Lucy’s regard of them. Each scene is played to guileless perfection; the guilt incurred by both George and Mamie, their own cross to bear and not directly brought about by anything Lucy does or says.
Make Way for Tomorrow opens with a pleasant enough family reunion; Barkley and Lucy Cooper summoning the clan together for fateful news. It seems bad investments have syphoned off the couple’s retirement savings, forcing the family home into foreclosure. The news is devastating to four out of five of the couple’s children (the fifth never seen and hinted at having moved away to California). George is the most empathetic of the lot. Alas, none of the kids are doing particularly well. This is, after all, the Great Depression. Times are tough and money is tight. Only the couple’s middle daughter, Nellie (Minna Gombell) has enough space to take in both parents until a more suitable arrangement can be devised. Too bad her husband, Harvey (Porter Hall) refuses to even entertain the notion. Thus, Nellie asks for three months grace to work on warming him up to the idea. In the meantime, eldest daughter, Cora Payne (Elizabeth Risdon) reluctantly agrees to move Barkley into the home she shares with her husband, Bill (Ralph Remley). He can sleep on the sofa in their cramped living room. George will take Lucy to live with his wife, Anita, and their wild teenage daughter, Rhoda (Barbara Read).
However, the two burdened families soon regard Lucy and Bark as inconveniences. As a daughter-in-law, Anita is, in fact, far more patient with Lucy than the couple’s own child, Cora is with Bark, whom she treats with mild contempt after he comes down with a cold. Separated from his beloved wife by almost 300 miles, Bark befriends a Jewish merchant, Max Rubens (Maurice Moscovitch) who attempts to offer a little sound advice about living with relatives – particularly one’s own children. This is a central theme in McCarey’s film; that human kindness is perhaps more easily given to strangers than to those we know better and should, in fact, respect and treasure more. Max is a benevolent soul, reading Lucy’s letters to Bark after he has broken his glasses and arriving at Cora’s home in the dead of cold with his wife’s chicken soup after Bark is invalided in bed. At first, Cora refuses Max entry into her home, only very reluctantly conceding after the doctor suggests visitors would be good for Bark’s morale.
In the meantime, Lucy has worn Anita’s patience thin; first, by intervening in her bridge tutorial, then later, by concealing Rhoda’s secret rendezvous with a young man whom Rhoda met after ditching Lucy at the movies for a couple of hours. The latter infraction is a deal breaker for Anita when Rhoda runs off and stays out all night. A short while later, Rhoda bluntly suggests to Lucy she should face facts – Barkley is too old to get a job. He will never be able to support her again. Lucy explains that when one is young ‘facing facts’ is relatively easy because there is no barometer of hardship to compare them. However, as one ages “pretending there are no facts to face” is the only comfort available. Anita eventually forces George’s hand to have his mother committed to a state home for the elderly. However, rather than place George in this awkward situation, Lucy feigns a desire to go willingly to the retirement home. At the same instance, Cora uses Bark’s cold as a pretext to suggest he ought to go live with the couple’s youngest daughter, Addie (never seen) in California. The warmer climate would do him good. Bark resigns himself to the move, but elects to take his wife out on the town for one last spree before his train departs for the coast.
Initially, the children had planned for the couple to have their farewell meal with them; a decision thwarted when Bark decides to take Lucy to the Vogard Hotel where many years before they spent their honeymoon. McCarey spares us the phone confrontation between Nellie and Bark, but allows us the truthful aftermath as the couple’s youngest son, Robert (Ray Meyer) astutely surmises, “We’ve known all along we’re probably the biggest good-fer-nothing bunch of kids that were ever raised. But it didn’t bother us much until we found out pop knew it too.” Bark and Lucy spend a glorious afternoon at the hotel. They elect to go to the train depot alone, Bark flirting with his wife for the last time. In his mind, she has not aged. She is still the same sweet girl he met and married some fifty years before. She finds this playful side to him ‘sweet’ and tells him so. McCarey moves us into the penultimate realization: that fifty years together have come to this bittersweet goodbye, Bark tenderly explaining, “If I don’t see you again…it’s been very nice knowing you” and Lucy reciprocating “…and if I don’t see you for…a little while…its been lovely – every bit of it. I’d sooner been your wife than anyone else’s.”
McCarey’s decision, not to end on this nostalgic affirmation of love, but rather Lucy’s unspoken acknowledgment this is almost certainly their final moment together, is the genuine heartbreaker; her gaze, only moments before brimming with restrained, if thoughtful adoration, suddenly caught in a terrible and mind-numbing realization she has said goodbye to her husband forever. We are left with Lucy, lost and alone and haunted at the depot. A lesser actress might have played the scene for drama or obvious pathos. Instead, Beulah Bondi simply reacts to the whirling gears inside the mind of a woman still emotionally tethered to the memory of her husband’s departure, yet unwilling to accept their valediction as permanent. Even for the most cynical movie watcher it is virtually impossible not to be moved by this moment; to be reminded of the inevitable passage of time and reluctant fate facing us all if we live long enough.
Criterion’s newly released Blu-ray appears to have been culled from the same flawed elements provided by Universal (the custodians of the pre-50’s Paramount library) that served as the basis for the Masters of Cinema (MoC) Blu-ray release in Europe. Additional clean-up has been performed, with improved encoding to recommend the Criterion over the MoC. But I have issues with the graininess of the image; at times so thick I really found myself paying more attention to the grain than the performances being given. In his opinion piece, Peter Bogdanovich speaks of running a nitrate print of Make Way for Tomorrow back in the 1970’s and considering it ‘quite stunning’. I don’t see much that is 'stunning' about this 1080p release. In fact, to my eyes it looks relatively flat with light built-in sharpening; the grain never evenly distributed, but quite clumpy in spots. Further to distractions are the age-related scratches and dirt that ought to have been digitally removed by Universal.
There is a digital harshness to this image I found fairly displeasing, despite the fact tonality is vastly improved and overall clarity is good – though, hardly great. Could it have looked better? My guess, particularly if the nitrate elements Bogdanovich spoke of still exist, is an unqualified ‘yes’ and so sad to see Universal did not go the extra mile to improve this one all the way. Criterion’s LPCM mono audio is, of course, up to their usual standards; virtually no hiss or pop and dialogue sounding fairly crisp and clean. For a Criterion release, this one is decidedly VERY light on the extras: two video piece, totaling 39 minutes; one from Bogdanovich, the other by historian/critic, Gary Giddins. Each is informative and thought-provoking in his own way. But we are sorely disappointed there is no accompanying audio commentary to the film, or theatrical trailer, or other vintage junkets or a retrospective on Leo McCarey’s career: lost opportunities, indeed. Criterion pads out the ‘extras’ with a thick booklet of essays attesting to the film’s virtues – nice, but hardly exciting. Bottom line: recommended for content. The transfer isn’t all that impressive and it’s a sincere shame.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)