Make Way for Tomorrow (1937, Leo McCarey)

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One of the most celebrated sour-grapes stories of Academy Award lore concerns Leo McCarey’s win for directing the wonderful comedy The Awful Truth — upon taking the stage, he included a light jab in his acceptance speech purporting that he’d received the Oscar for the wrong movie. He meant this one, released the same year, a bleak and sentimental drama about an elderly couple forced to live apart when none of their grown children are willing to make sacrifices to take care of them. While The Awful Truth is a recognized and well-deserved classic, Make Way for Tomorrow has experienced a growth in stature over the years thanks to the encouragement of film critics, preservationists like the Criterion Collection and such loud filmmaker voices as Peter Bogdanovich and Orson Welles. Alas, it’s our view that McCarey was wrong and the Academy was right — Make Way has some sublime moments, but it’s not half the movie The Awful Truth is.

Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore are the aging Coopers, Barkley Cooper an increasingly cranky figure who can no longer find work as he advances into his autumn years, his wife Lucy faithful but exhausted as her hearing is beginning to go along with her unerring optimism. When their house is the victim of a foreclosure (and you thought the 1930s were so different, didn’t you?), they call their five children to ask for help. One of them, a sour Californian, can’t make it; the others, while varying degrees of successful or at least stable, don’t have enough room to accommodate both Barkley and Lucy. For the time being they are forced to split up, an arrangement that ends up becoming sadly long-term when Lucy pretends she doesn’t know she’s about to be sent to a retirement home and Barkley takes ill and is sent off to California for the “climate.” Their separation is interrupted only by an afternoon and evening in Manhattan, a secret romance with no children in tow, its pleasures incredible but fleeting.

Make Way for Tomorrow is effective to a limited degree as a tearjerker, but it isn’t nearly as perceptive about differences between aging parents and adult children as it means to be, or as emotionally draining. For one thing, McCarey and the great screenwriter Viña Delmar get around the idea of having the audience “take sides” not by making everyone sympathetic but by making everyone absolutely dreadful. Yes, the children seem selfish, improbably unwilling to lend a real hand despite their obvious affluence, and the result is absurd — requiring a couple who’ve been married for fifty years to arbitrarily live apart. But you can also understand exactly why and how the kids are being driven up the wall — Lucy and Barkley are inexplicably well-mannered, loving and emotionally perceptive people in each other’s presence, but not as soon as they have to deal with doctors or with the very human need of their kids to not have their every move analyzed and meddled. The parents’ presence in their children’s lives is a hindrance, but its problems seem avoidable through polite conversation and mutual understanding the characters seem disinterested in exploring.

Several scenes seem like disasters lifted from well-observed real life, like when Lucy interrupts company by yelling into the phone, or when she carefully arranges it to make it easier for her son (Thomas Mitchell) to tell her she has to move into a rest home, or when Barkley — coming off as the world’s most irascible bastard — berates his physician incessantly. My dad was like that, never doing a damn thing doctors and nurses told him to do in the last years of his life. And I’ve had other family members who were tone-deaf or lacking in boundaries or ungrateful. I’m sure I’ve been some of those things too. I’d be interested in a naturalistic film about that, and this is the right writer and director for it. Unfortunately this can’t just be an honest and resonant portrait of a family in a difficult period, a movie about real people; it has to be The Saddest Thing In Existence, to telegraph a manipulative story to tell us something we don’t need to learn from a movie about treatment of our parents. Like most didactic films, it reads as a series of terrible people doing terrible things to each other (who cares that much about someone eating soup??) because it’s too busy being a sermon to make sense as a story. It’s frustrating because Delmar had already written two of the best and most keenly realistic films about marriage: the masterpiece Bad Girl, which deserves to be at least as famous as this, and The Awful Truth itself. The first recorded antsy, scary young coupledom; the second captured complication and eroticism. For a long time, it seems we’ll miss out on seeing Delmar’s take on aging.

But then there’s the last act, which redeems nearly every bothersme thing about the rest of the movie. If only this had been the entire film! Wandering New York City — where they’d had their honeymoon fifty years earlier — Lucy and Barkley happen upon a car dealership and get taken on a test drive, which leads them into a yearning, gorgeous journey of remembering and rediscovering. It’s subtle but they both make confessions, both find the world in one another anew, and the actors and script don’t overreach — their history feels felt and substantial but mostly your takeaway from Delmar’s treatment is a recognition of what aging doesn’t change about our feelings and fears. A few decades of camaraderie and memories in tow aside, the two of them could just as easily be teenagers nervously dancing, getting tipsy, saying a tearful goodbye at a train station. Moore and Bondi are incredible; they really seem to be in love.

Now, again, if only that were the matter at hand. I’m almost tempted to wonder if the entire setup was conceived as a way to get the two of them alone, for Bark to very pointedly bid the kids adieu for the evening and take his wife out for one more romantic evening. It gives the last act an edge of sad finality it mightn’t otherwise have, but all you can think as it ends — especially with Bondi’s anticlimactic, perplexed walk away from the train — is “wait, WHY aren’t they together again??” It’s silly. Welles used to say that Make Way for Tomorrow could make a stone cry. I cry at everything. I mean, everything. And some things make me absolutely sob; Bad Girl would be an example. But this didn’t get me. It has its heart in the right place and has several moments of brilliance but it’s just not a great piece of storytelling.

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