Actors: Victor Moore, Beulah Bondi, Fay Bainter
Director: Leo McCarey
Format: Multiple Formats, Blu-ray, Full Screen, NTSC, Subtitled
Number of discs: 1
Rated: NR (Not Rated)
Studio: Criterion Collection
Release Date: May 12, 2015
Run Time: 92 minutes
Leo McCarey’s familial melodrama, Make Way for Tomorrow, is deceptively simplistic in story and screenplay. The narrative, however, contains much more than plot; we are exposed to every expression, every reaction shot, with a precision in filmmaking that McCarey carried over from his years of experience in early comedic cinema. Famous for having made the reaction shot a commonplace element in the slapstick of Our Gang and Laurel & Hardy shorts, McCarey achieves just as much success with pathos in the close-ups and deliberate framing of his drama. McCarey understands that body language and subtle expressions are universally helpful in the language of cinema, affecting the audience’s emotional response with both laughter and tears. Make Way for Tomorrow has both, but neither feels contrived; the audience is brought into the story by the demand to participate in the reading of facial expressions, so that the emotional investment is our own. This is the sincerest form of filmmaking, as McCarey trusts his audiences enough to allow them their own personal involvement in the unfolding of the narrative.
Especially by today’s standards, there is something very familiar about Make Way for Tomorrow. McCarey’s simple narrative about an aging couple forced to move in with separate children after losing their home was the inspiration for Yasujirô Ozu’s Tokyo Story in the 1950s, not to mention the obvious parallels in last year’s critical darling, Love is Strange. But Make Way for Tomorrow is much more than its collection of parts, all of which are individually excellent, but come together in McCarey’s vision with precision and sincerity found in few films at the time or since.
With an approach that is often simultaneously filled with humor and heartache, the plot of Make Way for Tomorrow follows the misfortunes endured by elderly couple Barkley and Lucy Cooper (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi) attempting to enjoy the twilight of their life together in a pre-Social Security America. Having been unemployed for years, this couple is given the unfortunate news that the bank will be repossessing their longtime home. After gathering their four nearby children in the home which they were raised to give this news and humbly ask for help, it quickly becomes clear that the inconvenience of the situation will lead to an insensitive handling by nearly all of the offspring. Even those that offer up help do so unwillingly, and with stipulations. The most devastating of these is the insistence that Lucy and Bark are split up, to lessen the burden for each child opening their home.
Lucy moves in with her son, George (Thomas Mitchell), and his somewhat understanding wife, Anita (Fay Bainter), but her presence alone proves to be something of a burden and a nuisance. Even though she is polite and passive, Lucy manages to do all of the wrong things, from intruding on Anita’s bridge lessons with a noisy rocking chair or unwanted commentary to causing the family members to feel guilt by her mere presence. Bark has it even worse living with his daughter, Cora (Elizabeth Risdon), whose resentment of the situation first leads to an alternative solution. When Bark is suddenly taken ill, Cora makes the decision to send him to
to live with another of their offspring, under the guise of health benefits
from the kinder West Coast weather. Lucy is the next to find herself uprooted
again, to be sent to a home for the elderly, though it is in the cross-country
separation of the couple that the film’s real heartbreak occurs. California
The final act of the film is the gently paced final day that Lucy and Bark are permitted to spend together before forced to part ways, and this is where McCarey’s precise filmmaking begins to creep under the viewer’s skin. There is little indulgent about the melodrama of this final sequence, but the simple kindness that stranger pay this elderly couple on their final date is a stark contrast to the selfish behavior of their own blood relatives. Lucy and Bark go out on the town like we imagine they have not done since they were young and in love. The youth may be gone, but the love is clearer than one can imagine it ever was. Even in the final goodbye between these tender souls, McCarey never squeezes the audience for a tearful reaction; he allows the scene to play out unsentimentally to an effect far greater than all of the melodrama
had to offer.
The reason is simple: We care about these characters because they have become
real over the 92-minute running time, flaws and all. Hollywood
The Blu-ray release offers this classic a long-overdue high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack. The special features are primarily taken from the 2009 DVD release, including an interview with filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich about the significance of McCarey’s career, as well as a conversation with critic Gary Giddins about the social and political context of the film. Also included is a thick booklet insert with essays from critic Tag Gallagher and filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, as well as an excerpt from Robin Wood’s 1998 essay, “Leo McCarey and ‘Family Values’.”
Entertainment Value: 8.5/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 10/10
Historical Significance: 10/10