Make Way for Tomorrow
How often do I go to the cinema to see a movie I know will be sad and depressive? The answer is very rarely. It just does not connect with the idea of having a good time. That does not mean that sad and depressive films are not worth seeing, it just explain why they usually crash at the box office and why many of the big studios are very hesitant about that sort of movies. When Leo McCarey made “Make Way for Tomorrow” he might have known that this movie was certain to tank, yet he made it exactly like he intended to, and got sacked for it.
We are getting the reward for his sacrifice (oh, do not feel sorry for him, he went on to score big on “The Awful Truth” right after) with this sublime and deeply toughing drama. This is in short one of the most intelligent and empathic movies of the thirties. I dare not say of all time, I am simply not that far yet, but of all the movies on the list from this decade this one moved me the most.
“Make Way for Tomorrow” is about how we treat our parents, at least us living in a western culture. This movie may be from 37 but it might as well be from today. This issue has not changed. In our busy lives we often park our parents in some convenient place to take out for family occasions. In our lives there is often not room for them. This is the case for Lucy and Barkley Cooper. All their children are grown-ups with families and lives of their own, scattered all over America. Times have been hard on Lucy and Barkley and the bank has taken their old family home and set them out on the street. They are now forced to ask their children for help.
The “children” (which they are hardly anymore) pay lip service to helping out, but it is clear that it would be a huge inconvenience for them. The compromise solution they come up with is to break them apart and have them staying on shifts in their homes. This seems heartless, to break up the old couple like this, but Leo McCarey is not presenting them as heartless. He knows the dilemma the children are in. The have wives, husbands and children of their own and they cannot just sacrifice their own family. Instead they seek the compromise to make things work.
Of course it does not work. Those old folks are like rhinos in a glass shop trying to fit into their new families. The children try to be so accommodating to them, they really try to do the right thing, but it just becomes clearer and clearer that they are in the way. The children each have their approach. Nell quickly evades on having anything to do with her parents, George in New York have Lucy installed in their apartment and tries in vain to make her part of his family, but she just does not fit into their lives. Cora having Barkley staying tries to make him a minimum inconvenience by making him do minimum activity.
In one of the touching scenes of the movie we see Barkley’s friend the shopkeeper realizing how deep Barkley has sunk and how Cora has reduced him to an inconvenience. That makes a big emotional impact on him and did on me as well.
While George and his wife are secretly planning to install Lucy in a retirement home, Cora jumps at the opportunity when Barkley gets sick to send him to a better climate in California to stay with Addie, her sister. This will separate the old couple even further, probably for good and so they meet a last time in New York and go around to visit places from their honeymoon many many years ago. On their tour around the city they meet more compassion and understanding from complete strangers than they are receiving from their own children, whether it is the car salesman or the hotel manager, and when they say goodbye at the train station it is so clear that they love each other dearly and will never see each other again. That is by far the saddest ending I have seen in many years.
It highlights the wrongness in separating these two people and how they have been sacrificed for lives that have no room for them. They are not seen as assets or family but as problems that have to be dealt with, problems that are the children’s responsibility because they are their parents and for no other reason.
The movie is very effective and not an eye remains dry. We understand the sadness of the old folks and we understand, even sympathize, with the children. It is only afterwards that I am spotting a hole in the logic. Those children are not poor. They are living very comfortable lives. How difficult would it be for them to share in buying back their folks old home for them? Or if that is too much a smaller home where at least they can live together on a stipend? They can easily look after themselves as long as they have each other. Why this rush to split them apart? It seems to me the worst possible solution. But then of course there would not be a movie.
I am happy Leo McCarey defied Hollywood convention and made this movie. It is relevant and very well made, both on direction and acting and does not feel to me like a 75 year old movie. Leo McCarey made many comedies and won an Oscar for “The Awful Truth”, but he thought himself that “Make Way for Tomorrow” was the movie that deserved it.