#397) Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
OR “What a Drag It Is Getting Old”
Directed by Leo McCarey
Written by Viña Delmar. Based on the novel “Years Are So Long” by Josephine Lawrence and the play by Helen and Nolan Leary.
Class of 2010
The Plot: Barkley and Lucy Cooper (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi), announce to four of their grown-up children (Thomas Mitchell, Elisabeth Risdon, Minna Gombell, Ray Meyer) that the bank has foreclosed on their home, and they must vacate immediately. With their fifth child unable to take them both in for three months, George (Mitchell) agrees to take in Mother, while Cora (Risdon) will house Father. Both parents become an instant burden on their children’s home, spouses, and lifestyles. It’s a reflection of complex family dynamics and ageism in America, courtesy of one of the Dream Factory’s more depressing trips to reality.
Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film for “[c]hallenging the tried-and-true conventions of late-‘30s films”, and gives specific mention to McCarey, screenwriter Delmar, and lead performers Bondi and Moore.
But Does It Really?: “Make Way for Tomorrow” isn’t an iconic classic, nor does it reach any technical or cultural milestones, but it does stand on its own piece of ground: a family drama that opts for a realistic, downbeat approach over the more audience-friendly optimistic style of the time. And it’s this against-the-grain take on the material, as well as its influence on future filmmakers, that allows “Make Way for Tomorrow” a slight pass for NFR inclusion. That being said, I highly advise you do your homework beforehand and know what you’re getting into.
Shout Outs: When the movie usher brings Rhoda up to speed on the movie she dropped Lucy off at, she mentions there being a newsreel and a “Betty Boop”.
Wow, That’s Dated: The film’s depression era definitely colors in most of this movie’s aesthetic. Also, our treatment of the elderly, while still not perfect, has definitely improved in the last 80 years. And by improved I mean sometimes we let them curse in movies.
Seriously, Oscars?: “Make Way for Tomorrow” was not successful with either critics or audiences in 1937, but Leo McCarey stood by the film, calling it his best. Upon winning the Oscar for Best Director for his other 1937 NFR entry, “The Awful Truth”, McCarey allegedly told the audience that he was receiving the award for the wrong movie.
- Leo McCarey was inspired to make “Make Way for Tomorrow” after two life-changing incidents: a near-death experience after becoming ill from contaminated milk, and the death of his father Thomas, whom he was very close to. McCarey stuck to his guns on this movie, refusing several pleas from Paramount to make something with a more traditional happy ending.
- McCarey makes his thesis clear right from the beginning, with the giant title card “Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother”.
- Beulah Bondi, Thomas Mitchell; did Frank Capra loan out his entire stock company for this movie?
- If something seems off, that’s because both Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi are too young to be playing a couple in their early ‘70s; Moore was 61 in 1937, while Bondi was 48! She’s two years younger than Cora! That being said, Beulah Bondi was one of those actors who always played old.
- It’s explained that Bark and Lucy’s fifth child, Addie, is not present at the beginning because she’s “way up there in California.” Up there? Where are they, Panama?
- Once Ma moves in with George and Anita, I started to pick up on this movie’s vibe. This is not a family that will grow stronger through a series of comic episodes; this is a family whose failure to communicate will be their undoing. Seriously, the Coopers have the most uncomfortable family dynamic this side of “Ordinary People”.
- Three years after her wonderful turn in “Imitation of Life”, Louise Beavers is back to playing the lead character’s maid who has little to do with the plot. Damn you, Hollywood.
- Also dated: movie ushers actually doing their job.
- Shoutout to Maurice Moscovich, giving a lovely performance here as Max Rubens, Bark’s only friend in Cora’s town.
- Is it just me or does everyone in this movie hate each other?
- There’s something you never see anymore: a “Man Wanted” sign, as opposed to a “Help Wanted” sign.
- Bark says he and Lucy have been married 50 years. Which means they got married when Lucy was -2 years old! This is the first readout that has caused my Michael Douglas Scale to self-destruct.
- It takes a while to get there, but Bark and Lucy’s goodbye at the train station is possibly the saddest such scene in history. These two are saying goodbye potentially for the last time, and they know it. I was not expecting this movie to stir up so much emotion in me.
- Ultimately, that’s what I appreciated about this movie. Despite being a largely forgotten 82-year-old movie, it still managed to engage with me in a way many modern films can’t. I found myself sympathizing with almost every character, even during moments of conflict. This movie does not shy away from the topic of aging and how we all cope (or don’t) with it. These complex emotions run deep in everyone, therefore ensuring a film’s enduring legacy, even if it’s not one of the quote-unquote classics.
- “Make Way for Tomorrow” came and went in 1937, but its biggest fans included the likes of John Ford, Jean Renoir, and Orson Welles, who listed it among his influences for “Citizen Kane”.
- Another admirer of “Make Way for Tomorrow” was Japanese filmmaker Yasujirô Ozu, who used this film as inspiration for his 1953 classic “Tokyo Story”.
- Following the initial failure of “Make Way for Tomorrow” (and his refusal to take notes from the bosses), Leo McCarey was let go from Paramount. He bounced back at Columbia with “The Awful Truth”.