When Leo McCarey accepted his Best Director Oscar for The Awful Truth in 1937, he announced that he’d won it for the wrong film, in a reference to his other film that year, Make Way For Tomorrow. Today it’s hard to disagree with this assessment. While The Awful Truth is a great comedy in its own right, Make Way For Tomorrow is a timeless family drama that still packs an emotional punch.
Set in the midst of the depression, Barkley and Lucy Cooper (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi) are a retired couple who turn to their children for support when they are evicted from their home. Their adult offspring are initially sympathetic, “temporarily” splitting the pair up and taking each parent into their homes. The living situations quickly deteriorate though, as the elderly Coopers wear out their welcome with their selfish children.
I previously knew McCarey predominantly as a director of comedy, specifically with The Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, as well as classics like Ruggles Of Red Gap and Going My Way. The reason Make Way For Tomorrow works, and resonates today, is the lightness of touch he brings to the story. Despite some devastating moments, it’s never overwrought, instead feeling well-observed and incredibly humane. The characters are all nuanced and feel like real people.
The children are depicted harshly, but McCarey takes care to not condemn them outright. They each have reasons for not wanting to take their parents in. For every moment of cruelty, there’s a companion scene showing how disruptive it is having them around all the time – Bondi sitting in her creaking rocking chair is as funny as it is irritating.
In one poignant scene, Bondi discovers that her eldest son (Thomas Mitchell) has resolved to send her to a retirement home. She takes the decision out of his hands, volunteering to go before he even brings it up. Both performances are expertly judged, with each character not saying the thing they want to, but understanding each other perfectly. Mitchell made a career playing sympathetic characters in films like Stagecoach, It’s A Wonderful Life and Only Angels Have Wings, so it’s a canny bit of casting to make him the most conflicted of the couples’ offspring.
The final act is beautifully observed, and plays out like the inverse of FW Murnau‘s brilliant Sunrise, where a young couple rediscover their love for each other. Here it’s an older loving couple who reaffirm their love in one final night on the town before they are separated, perhaps forever. It plays like a dream, as they are treated with a respect and kindness that has been absent in their interactions with their own family. The ending itself is genuinely heartbreaking – Orson Welles said it “would make a stone cry”.
McCarey’s visual style is not much to write home about, but lovingly rendered by Criterion. What’s more important is the writing which is still as vivid as ever. The treatment of old people, or the attitude that they are a burden, is still sadly relevant today. Never as maudlin or sentimental as his contemporaries Frank Capra and Preston Sturges, Make Way For Tomorrow is a compassionate, quietly devastating film, and one that is incredibly influential, serving as the basis for Yasujiro Ozu‘s much more famous Tokyo Story.
The late great Peter Bogdanovich is one of a handful of directors I could listen to talk about film all day long. He’s a truly knowledgeable cineaste, so it’s a delight to hear him talk about McCarey and Make Way For Tomorrow. Also included is an interview with Gary Giddins on McCarey; plus a booklet full of essays by Tag Gallagher and Bertrand Tavernier, and an excerpt from Robin Wood’s 1998 piece “Leo McCarey and Family Values”