Movies We Like
Make Way for Tomorrow
One of the things I love about discovering old movies is finding something that seems well ahead of its time. It’s always revelatory to find cinematic evidence that not every film can be easily placed into an obvious time frame. Sometimes the writing or acting can just seem more modern than one would have thought for the era in which the film was released. Citizen Kane changed everything about what one could do with a movie and it looks even more incredible when viewed in comparison with the other films that were released at the same time.
Make Way for Tomorrow, in a modest kind of way, is such a film. It’s a family centered drama about a rather unremarkable situation and that alone is rather unique when compared with the kinds of historical epics and glamorous escapist fare that was the norm for what people expected when they went to the movies in 1937. It’s a film that has more in common with the films of, say, James L. Brooks than anything that was contemporary with the film. An elderly couple loses their home and each must move in with one of their adult children. Their separation and the agony it causes them are barely understood by their children with their own families who live in different parts of the country and seem entirely oblivious to the sadness the situation has caused their parents.
The actors who play the elderly couple, Victor Moore and Beaulah Bondi, weren’t actually elderly, just excellent actors under a lot of makeup. They play Barkley "Pa" Cooper and Lucy "Ma" Cooper, a couple very much in love who are embarrassed about what they now have to ask of their kids. Their forced separation and reliance on their children is only seen as a headache for their kids who have their own family lives to contend with. As each tries to make the best of their situation it becomes clear that their kids are so focused on their day-to-day lives that they have no understanding of the bigger picture and aren’t exactly adhering to the whole "honor thy mother and father" thing. There’s a great moment where Lucy’s daughter-in-law, who bristles at having to live with Lucy, hosts her bridge club in her home and the entire group listens as Lucy talks to Barkley on the phone. The whole group looks so sad for a minute as if the reality of old age that everyone tries to ignore has finally sunken in for this younger generation which Barkley and Lucy are surrounded by.
Eventually Barkley and Lucy are reunited, but only briefly. Barkley is going to leave his daughter’s house and look for work elsewhere but first he is to have dinner with Lucy and their children. However he convinces Lucy to skip out on dinner with their ungrateful kids and instead go into New York City and have dinner at the hotel where they had their wedding. This last night they have together before Barkley leaves is heartbreakingly romantic as they take a few hours to reflect on their lives together and all that they’ve shared. Their goodbye at the train station as Barkley pulls away, leaving Lucy looking like the loneliest woman in the world, is one of the saddest moments in film history. Orson Welles said Make Way for Tomorrow could make a stone cry and he was absolutely right. It’s hard to believe a film like this could be made in 1937. McCarey did have to fight the studio for his downbeat ending and thus we have this little unsung work of art. It’s rare to see a film this old that feels so contemporary. Make Way for Tomorrow is a film about family dynamics and the way we treat the elderly which reflects our fear of old age and resonates now maybe more so than ever.