Leo McCarey was well known for the three stages of a renowned film career; his early days as a Hal Roach gagman leading to his work with Charley Chase as well as bringing Laurel and Hardy together while also directing comedy legends W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers and Mae West; his screwball sound comedies that launched the comedic career of Cary Grant, starting with his Academy Award winning The Awful Truth; and his more serious period (always with comic touches) that included Going My Way and An Affair to Remember.
But one of his masterpieces which helped define his later, more serious work, Make Way For Tomorrow (1937), was initially panned by the critics and a dismal box-office failure. The same year he also directed The Awful Truth, which garnered him his first Academy Award, causing him to complain, “You gave it to me for the wrong picture.”
Make Way for Tomorrow forced a Depression stricken audience to face the realistic and heart-breaking impact of the economy on a personal level; which was markedly different from the usual 1930s escapist fare. Simply told, Make Way For Tomorrow is about an aging couple (Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore) who lose their home and look to their children for support. All four grown adults, headed up by eldest son George (Thomas Mitchell – only three years younger than Bondi!) have reasons why they can’t take in their parents, as the Depression has hit them all hard. George comes up with the idea of the children sharing the responsibility, and the couple separating, staying in different homes.
The ground breaking effort never points a finger of ridicule on any one character, as the “blame” for the situation could be a general apathy towards aging parents, or the inability of a modern family, seeking its own independence, to understand the galvanizing situation a forced separation can create. Bondi and Moore miss each other terribly, and scenes that could fall into painfully overwrought sentimentalism are played straight, making the scenarios all the more realistic.
When Bondi becomes too much of an imposition on the other children, they decide to send her off to a home. Knowing this is coming, Bondi, always the sacrificer, makes the suggestion before son George can, sparing him the humiliation. Moore and Bondi are reunited, if only for a day, to enjoy each other’s company before the inevitable and final separation takes place. They make plans for when they will see each other again, but it is obvious that, due to their advancing years, this is the end.
The couple spends their day playing a form of “hooky,” and build some lasting memories together. While their children wring their hands back home, wondering where the couple is, they are enjoying rides in a new car, drinks and dancing at an upscale hotel, and dinner at a swanky restaurant. All the time, the hours tick away with a departing train as the impending final point of no return.
The studio fought McCarey, demanding more comedy, less stoic realism, and an ending that would belie the hard fought journey painstakingly depicted throughout. McCarey won the battle but lost the war: Paramount terminated his contract.
Today, the film is a triumph of script and direction; and was an inspiration for many films, from Ozu’s Tokyo Story, to Risi’s Scent of a Woman. And although made afterwards, brings to mind several moments from Murnau’s Sunrise. Orson Welles later claimed Make Way for Tomorrow could “make a stone cry,” and filmmaker Errol Morris named it his favorite film, stating it is, “…the most depressing movie ever made, providing reassurance that everything will definitely end badly.”
The Criterion Collection has re-released the masterpiece on Blu-ray and DVD and it’s quite a package, including:
- A High-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
- Tomorrow, Yesterday, and Today, a 2009 interview with filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich about the career of director Leo McCarey and Make Way for Tomorrow
- Interview from 2009 with critic Gary Giddins about McCarey’s artistry and the political and social context of the film
- A booklet featuring essays by critic Tag Gallagher and filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, as well as an excerpt from film scholar Robin Wood’s 1998 piece “Leo McCarey and ‘Family Values’”
Proving once again that the current public can definitely “get it wrong,” Make Way For Tomorrow is a powerful and prescient indictment, one that may hold even greater touchstones today than it did in 1937, as we all face the prospect of taking care of parents that no one else will, or stare at the abyss of our own uncertain futures as middle age creeps up.