“Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture”
These were the words of director Leo McCarey upon accepting his best director Academy Award for The Awful Truth in 1937. The picture he referred to – and often proclaimed as his finest – was Make Way For Tomorrow released the same year. However, for some inexplicable reason, Make Way For Tomorrow has rarely found mention among the greatest Hollywood films of the 1930s. But, I believe it to be one of the most engaging discussions on age to have ever graced the screen.
The story is about an elderly couple, Bark and Lucy Cooper (played by the wonderful Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi). A couple who lose their loving home and are forced to separate from each other, living with their son and daughter, respectively. They soon find themselves unable to find work due to their age, while also becoming a nuisance to their children and carers. Ultimately, forcing them to face a heartbreaking separation.
The ups and downs the couple face while separated from each other are beautifully reflected throughout Make Way for Tomorrow. One such example sees Lucy’s old rocking chair placed in the living room of her new home while her daughter-in-law plays bridge with friends. She sits quietly, trying to enjoy her new life and surroundings, but the chair keeps squeaking, annoying those in the room. Here, McCarey subtly portrays the younger generation’s annoyance. Her squeaking chair a mere symbol of their realisation that Lucy ultimately reflects their future. From the need to care for elderly parents through to the uncomfortable reality of mortality.
Meanwhile, Bark desperately tries to find a job, hoping it will provide him with the opportunity to reunite with Lucy. However, the only joy he finds is in a conversation with an elderly shop owner; lingering over the past and their vanished youth. However, an even more powerful symbol of the invisibility of age comes as Bark passes an employment agency with a “help wanted” sign. He wonders whether it could relate to his career as a bookkeeper but is unable to see the details through his broken glasses. Thus asking a man passing by to help him read the sign. The man replies, No. Why? Were you a bookkeeper?” to which Berk proudly replies: “I am a bookkeeper.” as he walks away deflated.
The slow realisation for Lucy and Bark that they are a growing inconvenience in the lives of their children and grandchildren is both painful and haunting. And as Bark falls ill, his daughter seizes the opportunity to send him to live with her sister in sunny California. Leaving him no choice but to reluctantly accept; agreeing his health would benefit from the change of climate. Meanwhile, Lucy finds a letter that reveals the plans of her son and daughter-in-law to send her to a retirement home. And just like Bark, avoids making a scene, waiting instead for her son to bring up the idea. When the discussion arrives, she offers no resistance; her only stipulation that Bark cannot know. The lie of her continuing life with her son to be maintained.
From the opening credits, the film foreshadows the inevitable and permanent separation of Lucy and Bark. Each scene making it more and more evident that there are no happy endings possible. Apart from the film’s opening, the elderly couple only shares the screen again at the end of the movie. In one final day as they reminisce about their past before separating for good. A brief opportunity seized to be young again before their inescapable separation takes hold. Both Lucy and Bark taking an expensive car for a ride that they could never afford and revisiting the hotel where they spent their honeymoon.
These scenes are once again beautifully contrasted as every stranger they encounter seems genuinely interested in their nostalgic stories. Each person treating them with respect not afforded to them by their own children. They end up spending the whole evening in town, skipping the family farewell dinner to go to the train station; just the two of them alone, saying goodbye possibly forever.
One striking aspect of the film is its brave take on the American Family unit. There are no villains here, although the two children housing their parents do view their duty as an inconvenience. Interestingly though, they reflect on their self-centred behaviour when discussing the possibility of saying goodbye to their parents at the train station. Ultimately offering us a glimmer of light in their love. But its the refusal to force a happy ending with a family reunion that elevates the emotional toll of the film; its realistic portrayal of the burden of growing old coalescing with society’s failure to acknowledge it.
Another aspect of the film that is both daring and unique is the choice of having an older couple as leads. After all, this was a film made at the peak of the Hollywood studio system. The majority of releases seeking to promote films by glamorising and exploiting their leading stars. With looks, made-up personas and exciting backgrounds essential in selling cinema seats. And this, in turn, may explain the lack of Academy recognition.
Make Way for Tomorrow defies the template of many similar pictures of the time by rejecting the classic love story. Instead, replacing this with a divine retrospection of the 50-year old relationship between two equals. In turn, providing us with a story so universal, it transcends time, culture and geography. Attributes that would lead legendary Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu to take McCarey’s classic as inspiration for his masterpiece Tokyo Story 16 years later.
Director: Leo McCarey