With the tough economic times we have faced over the past few years many families have been forced into situations they never envisioned, like grown children moving back in with their now aging parents, or in some cases, the other way around.
There also seems to be certain times when art is in perfect alignment with the times. Whether a painting, a written work, a song or a film it seems to be exactly in synch with a point in time. Such is the case with the film I am writing about here, only the film happens to be over seventy years old.
The movie is “Make Way for Tomorrow” which some folks may view as a tear jerker, however calling this film a tear jerker is reducing the significance of a work that has much more substance and depth than a standard tissue wiper. “Make Way for Tomorrow” earns its emotional pull with honestly in its storytelling and the strength of its characters. Generally, when a film attempts to tug at your emotions the filmmakers create an emotionally fake situation that rips open your tear ducts without shame or reason; Arthur Hiller’s film version of Eric Segal’s bestselling waterfall, “Love Story” is prime example. Here the film earns its sentiment honestly with the passion and love of the two elderly characters facing a crossroads in their final years that is out of their control, yet they still manage to hold on to their dignity. Orson Welles once said in an interview to Peter Bogdanovich, “only a stone could remain dry” after seeing this film.
In 1937, Leo McCarey won a best director Academy Award for “The Awful Truth.” In his acceptance he stated that he believed he won this award for the wrong film. Along with “The Awful Truth,” McCarey had a second film released that year, “Make Way for Tomorrow.” Unfortunately, this film died at the box office and has received little recognition over the years until it appeared at the Telluride Film Festival a few years ago. Brought back to the attention of film lovers, and now released by Criterion on home video, “Make Way For Tomorrow” revolves around the Cooper family. Bark (Victor Moore) and Lucy Cooper (Beulah Bondi), an elderly couple, fall behind on their mortgage payment and are about to lose their home. They inform their five children of the situation who begin to play a game of passing the buck, or in this case passing the parents. No one wants to take them in until George (Thomas Mitchell) reluctantly agrees take in their mother, while sister Cora (Eliasabeth Risdon) grudgingly takes in the father, allowing him to sleep on the couch.
The parents begin to suffer one humiliating belittling experience after another at the hands of their children. In the course of time Dad gets sick and Mom is faced with a daughter who wants to send her to an old age home. Dad is eventually pawned off on a sister living in California. Before the elderly couple are forever separated by three thousand miles they are given a few last hours to spend together that they turn into an all day excursion of New York reliving their honeymoon some fifty years ago. The final goodbye at the train station is one of most emotionally heartfelt moments in American film.
“Make Way for Tomorrow” deals with a topic rarely presented in film, that of elderly parents needing care, and the responsibility, or lack of, taken by their grown kids. McCarey is one of the great humanists of the cinema, an underrated master at showing the various shades of human behavior. Here he shifts moods effortlessly giving us people at their most selfish and pettiest as well as their most dignified. The family’s situation is one many can identify with and McCarey puts a mirror up in the face of the audience almost demanding to know what you would do in a similar situation, take your parents in or treat them like disposable waste and send them on their way.
There are no major stars in this exquisite film but magnificent performances are plentiful. The elderly couple are superbly played by Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi; both had to be aged to fit into the roles. Thomas Mitchell, Fay Bainter and Elizabeth Risdon portray some of the grown children. Risdon is especially good as an uncaring daughter who permits her Dad to sleep on her couch. Later when he becomes ill, and a doctor is making a home visit, she forces him into a bedroom and a real bed only for the sake of appearances. Most of the characters come across as three-dimensional to the credit of screenwriter Vina Delmar who based her screenplay on a novel by Josephine Lawrence and a play by Helen and Nolan Leary. The parents are not portrayed just as saintly victims, for example Mother Cooper is realistically nosy and annoying at times. Vina Delmar also wrote “The Awful Truth” for McCarey and was nominated for an Oscar for that film in the screenwriting category.
“Make Way for Tomorrow” was one of twenty-five films just named to the National Film Registry in 2010. Each year 25 films that are considered ”culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant are added to the list to be preserved for all time. These films are not chosen as representative of the “best” American films but rather as works of importance and significance to American culture.