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Criterion once again comes forward with a worthy and essential DVD that, if commercial considerations came first, wouldn't even be considered for release. Leo McCarey's star-challenged 1937 domestic drama is concerned with an utterly un-marketable family issue: what to do with aged mother and father? As the Depression-era mass audience went to the movies precisely to escape this kind of problem, Make Way for Tomorrow was a resounding flop. As reported by critic Gary Giddens on a disc extra, the film received accolades from McCarey's fellow filmmakers and glowing reviews from critics, even if some reviews advised filmgoers that the movie was too sad to be recommended.
The story is simple enough. When the bank repossesses the house of elderly Bark and Lucy Cooper (Victor Moore & Beulah Bondi), their middle-aged children avoid dealing with the problem. George, the most responsible son (Thomas Mitchell) takes in Ma while resentful daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon) houses Pa. The plan is for the better-off daughter Nellie (Minna Gombell) to eventually take in both parents. Bark and Lucy don't fare well without each other. Cora resents Bark's fussing and is rude to his new friend, the local merchant Max (Maurice Moscovitch). Lucy innocently interferes in George's household, causing friction between his wife Anita (Fay Bainter) and their daughter Rhoda (Barbara Read). Then Nellie's husband Harvey (Porter Hall) refuses to take in either parent, so it becomes evident that Bark and Lucy will have to separate permanently. Cora uses a medical excuse to suggest that Bark be sent to another daughter out in California. George looks into an old folk's home for Lucy. After a fifty-year marriage, the old folks are left in Manhattan with just five hours together before Bark's train leaves.
Leo McCarey began his career directing Hollywood's most famous comedians: Laurel & Hardy, Charley Chase, The Marx Brothers, Mae West. He made what may be the best screwball comedy (The Awful Truth) and found his forté in romantic comedy-dramas like Love Affair and Going My Way. Hailed as a master of improvisation, a skill he learned from years of silent comedy work, McCarey placed character insight and natural performances above camera tricks. The famed Jean Renoir was famously quoted as saying that no American director understood people as well. Although Make Way for Tomorrow's failure lost McCarey his contract at Paramount, he always considered it his best film.
Viña Delmar's script softens the original book and play yet is relentless in its observation of family dynamics. McCarey doesn't separate his characters into heroes and villains by making the "old folks" kindly innocents victimized by unthinking relatives. Dealing with the parents isn't always easy. Old Bark knows he's not welcome in Cora's house and becomes uncooperative. Lucy disrupts Alice's bridge lessons, puts a strain on the duties of the maid (Louise Beavers) and contributes unintentionally to problems with daughter Rhoda. The problem is everyone's fault and no one's; there just seems no place for Bark and Lucy to be together. Even the understanding George and Alice are eventually compelled to take steps to remove mother from the house.
Make Way for Tomorrow does not show its age in the slightest. After an opening title card makes mention of a "generation gap", the movie demonstrates the truth we all know, that older relatives can easily be resented as an inconvenience. The movie abounds in awkward moments of family embarrassment and thoughtless bad manners. Events that in an ordinary movie would be crucial are only alluded to, as when daughter Rhoda's involvement with an older man ends in talk of her name "being kept out of the case". McCarey is also sensitive to issues often sentimentalized or ignored in 1930s movies. The Coopers' black maid is an employee with rights and needs of her own. When the Jewish merchant Max pays a visit to his friend Bark's sickbed, Cora slams the door in his face, dismissing his wife's chicken soup in a way that smacks of anti-Semitism.
Although Leo McCarey doesn't blunt the reality of the situation, he allows the old couple (and us) a last-reel grace period. Left to spend their final afternoon together in the city, Bark and Lucy enjoy an idyllic last date, vaguely reminiscent of the "trip to the city" in Murnau's silent classic Sunrise. The discomfort of their guilty children is forgotten when they visit the hotel where they spent their honeymoon fifty years before. The hatcheck girl is gracious and the manager treats them to the hospitality of the hotel. Lucy has a drink, but only after seeing that other women are drinking in public now. For a couple of hours Bark and Lucy are able to communicate as sweethearts once more. What follows is one of the most touching farewells in the movies.
For such an emotional subject, no tears are shed. Make Way for Tomorrow addresses the hard truth of old age without playing the tragedy game, and its heartbreak is honestly earned. We are told that Paramount chief Adolph Zukor pleaded with Leo McCarey to relent and allow his ill-fated couple to stay together, but the director had too much integrity to undercut the story. At this point in his career McCarey was so consistently successful that a "flop" of this caliber only added to his prestige.
The movie demonstrates the talent of character actress Beulah Bondi, who gives one of the best and most understated performances of the 1930s. Also earning our respect is actor Thomas Mitchell as the only relative willing to assume responsibility for his parents. In a tellingly painful moment, Lucy spares her son the pain of turning her out by making an announcement of her own. The sense of sacrifice involved has an almost Biblical quality, played out in a humble everyday setting.
Criterion's Make Way for Tomorrow is licensed from Universal, the holders of most pre-1948 Paramount titles. The B&W transfer was made from elements in excellent condition. The clear image allows us to admire the impressive makeup work on actors Moore and Bondi. Beulah Bondi wasn't yet fifty, and the illusion of old age is remarkable.
The disc extras are particularly good. An insert booklet contains three insightful essays. Bertrand Tavernier writes about discovering the film later in France. An excerpt from Robin Wood analyzes Make Way for Tomorrow's final date scene as an act of "un-marrying" between two adults facing the end of their relationship. Critic Tad Gallagher's appreciation of Leo McCarey's deceptively unforced direction uses telling frame grabs to illustrate subtle, relevant meanings in the images.
Two new interviews are included as well. Critic Gary Giddens examines Make Way for Tomorrow in the context of the 1930s, when Social Security had just been adopted. He also explains director McCarey's relationship to the HUAC committee hearings and the problems of his later career. Peter Bogdanovich relates anecdotes told him by greats like Howard Hawks and Orson Welles, assembling a warm picture of McCarey as one of Hollywood's most respected talents.
The extras inadvertently bring up an inconsistency. Essayist Tag Gallagher identifies Make Way for Tomorrow screenwriter Viña Delmar as a pen name for a male screenwriter, Eugene Delmar. Peter Bogdanovich relates a story about an attractive woman catching Leo McCarey's eye at a nightspot; McCarey subsequently interviewed Ms. Delmar sight unseen and was surprised to discover it was the same person. Other sources identify the Delmars as a married couple who worked together on scripts. Her birth name was Alvina Croter, which might explain the odd Spanish pen name. However, when Eugene died in 1956 Ms. Delmar stopped writing.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Make Way for Tomorrow rates:
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