The year he won his first directing Oscar Leo McCarey thanked the Academy in his speech but candidly admitted that they gave it to him for the wrong picture. He won for the screwball comedy The Awful Truth. McCarey believes the best film he made that year was Make Way for Tomorrow.
McCarey is a filmmaker that made the transition from silent to sound and helmed in excess of 100 features, working with the likes of Cary Grant, Mae West, the Marx Brothers, and pairing Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy together. Admired by the likes of John Ford, Frank Capra, and Jean Renoir, McCarey is mostly overlooked on account his last seminal work was made fifteen years prior to his death in 1969.
Make Way for Tomorrow was sold to audiences with the tagline, “A human story of domestic affairs.” The film bombed and became nearly forgotten. But 75 years after its failure among the general public Make Way‘s themes are still identifiable and worth ruminating about to this day. The plot involves Barkley and Lucy Cooper (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi), an elderly couple who are forced to separate when they lose the house to the bank and none of their five children can board both parents.
Watching the film unfold I was expecting an overindulgence of saccharine as a means to have Depression-era audiences leaving theaters in an uplifting mood. What I got was McCarey showing the world isn’t all sunshine, rainbows, and lollipops, as much as Lesley Gore would lead us to believe decades later. Influenced by the recent death of his own father, McCarey committed himself to project, which is adapted from Josephine Lawrence’s novel, and was adamant to Paramount Pictures chief Adolph Zukor to not compromise the film’s message. Make Way‘s conclusion offers brutal honesty about an uncomfortable subject.
In its own way the film is a side companion to Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels. The 1942 release was a satire about a movie director who is tired of making screwball comedies and longs to make socially conscious cinema. In the end the director comes to the realization that comedy can do more good for the poor than the film he proposed on doing, a film whose title that would ultimately become a Coen brothers release: O Brother, Where Art Thou?. McCarey offers humor and pathos to a subject that most will encounter at some point in their lives.
At an early age we are taught to respect our elders and to honor thy mother and father. They nurture us and help us on our way to finding our place in the world. Having grown up in a household where my mother suffered from Alzheimer’s in her mid-60s and my father had nerve damage in his legs, I wonder if my own life was stunted in an effort to help care for both in doing simple chores and errands. I made the conscious decision to help as they had when I came into their lives. As their only child I wanted what was best for my parents.
Leo McCarey’s film involves five siblings – four, actually, as the fifth is in California (and never seen on screen), while the others are located around the East coast – and through them you see how much of an inconvenience it can be to board a parent and how it disrupts a household. Issues abound in this tale involving infirmity, dependence, empathy. The result is gut-wrenching as the problems aren’t a simple fix or easy to address.
When my father passed suddenly last fall I had to address the issue of what to do with my mother. Rather than steer audiences to think a certain way, McCarey would rather us debate the decisions this fictional family makes when dealing with their parents.
None of the children have enough room for both parents, so they split them up in the short term until more suitable arrangements are made. Mother Lucy goes to live with her son George (Thomas Mitchell), his wife Anita (Fay Bainter), and their college-age daughter Rhoda (Barbara Read). They are set up in a nice New York apartment. Father Barkley is boarded with daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon) and her husband Bill (Ralph Remley) in the country, a few hours outside of the Big Apple.
The winter season proves to get the better of Barkley as his health starts to fail, which puts added strain on Cora. This while Lucy’s good-naturedness gets under the skin of Anita, causing tension in the family household. Then there’s the stress of separation that takes a toll on Lucy and Barkley. Having enjoyed each other’s company the last five decades the months apart they face the realization that maybe it’s for the best if they yield to next generation and salvage the relationships they have their sons and daughters.
Knowing nothing about the stars of this production, during Peter Bogdanovich’s interview as one of the extras on the Criterion Collection release I was astounded to discover that Bondi was nowhere near the age she played. Thanks to makeup and black-and-white photography the 48-year-old was made to be a convincing matriarch at age seventy and above. The way she inhabits the role and is at times a nuisance and calming presence to those around her allows for greater introspection on how a child might handle such a situation as boarding a parent.
The most memorable sequences occur right near the end when the couple go exploring New York City. This offers a touching reunion as they reminisce about their wedding they had decades ago, including venturing into the same hotel where they spent their honeymoon. It is during these moments that you have supporting characters that go out of their way to make sure they have a great time. Even a car salesman who suspects Barkley to be rich gentlemen and offers to drive them around town is congenial, if not a little miffed. It would be easy for the salesman to blow up after finding out Barkley can’t afford to buy an automobile, but McCarey prefers to have the experience be about the couple and not the salesman.
Leo McCarey doesn’t wow visually but his simple direction is right for the film. It gives attention to characters and their reactions and the difficulties faced. An easy conclusion to draw is that the children are horrible human beings, but who is to say that we ourselves wouldn’t have reacted in a similar manner? That’s what is outstanding about Make Way for Tomorrow; they don’t call them tough choices for nothing. Such a timeless and meaningful film.
The Criterion Collection release comes in its standard Blu-ray case and inlcudes a 32-page booklet that includes three essays on the film, numerous scene stills, cast and crew listings, and transfer notes. The film doesn’t carry a substantial amount of supplemental material but the two interviews included are worth your attention.
“Tomorrow, Yesterday, and Today” has filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich assess the life and career of director Leo McCarey. The interview is from 2009 and is heavily focussed on Make Way for Tomorrow. Lots of cool anecdotes to be found including Orson Welles’ famous comment about the film who said it was so depressing it could make a stone cry. Also worth noting is that many of the great early filmmakers came from backgrounds not associated wanting to be a director at all. John Ford was a sailor. Frank Capra was a mathematician in the U.S. Army. McCarey was lawyer but no one took him seriously because of his boyish looks.
The second interview features film critic Gary Giddins who looks at the film from a sociological and political standpoint, citing how it illustrates the necessity of Social Security and examining its treatment of race and ethnicity. In the interview Giddins also talks about McCarey’s actions during the McCarthy anti-Communist senate hearings and how McCarey’s own conservative leanings did not bleed into his films.
Make Way for Tomorrow is a film that hit me hard. It’s understandable how contemporary 1937 audiences wouldn’t take to the feature. But what’s remarkable is that while circumstances have changed the harsh realities of the plight of the elderly still exist to this day. Leo McCarey’s feature is heartbreaking and thoughtful in its presentation in seeing how children take care of parents while still trying to maintain their own lives.
Director: Leo McCarey
Featuring: Victor Moore, Beulah Bondi, Fay Bainter, Thomas Mitchell, Porter Hall, Barbara Read, Louise Beavers
Running Time: 92 minutes
Rating: Not Rated
Released: May 12, 2015