“The movie you’re about to see is transcendently painful to watch. And that’s actually a good thing,” said film historian Dennis Bartok this morning, in his introduction to MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (1937).
Director Leo McCarey’s drama about a sweet, elderly couple who lose their home and are forced to move in with their grown children — separately, 300 miles apart — is profoundly heartbreaking. (I will go out on a limb and say that the final 26 minutes comprise the most moving extended sequence in American cinema.) It’s also a work of sublime beauty and art that, once seen, is never forgotten — and indeed, at the end of today’s screening, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Few American films have dealt honestly with the subject of old age and its effect on the parent-child relationship. It’s an uncomfortable and unsettling topic for many in our society, but it’s also universally relatable. In this picture, the adult children have varying reactions to the prospect of taking in their parents. Their own lives, financial situations, spouses, kids and selfish attitudes turn the parents’ presence into a burden, and eventually there is talk of old-age homes and distant trips.
But McCarey never lets the movie fall into sticky, manipulative sentiment. He simply keeps to the reality of dealing with aging parents, with issues of responsibility, inconvenience, duty and guilt all coming to the fore. McCarey was personally invested in this story. His own father had recently died, and MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW was McCarey’s way of honoring his parents and their entire generation. He also made sure to leaven the proceedings with healthy doses of humor and charm sprinkled throughout. “This picture was certainly a heart-tugger,” McCarey later said, “but the thing that made it great, I think, was the subtle comedy that Victor Moore, Beulah Bondi and others in the cast were able to inject into their performance.”
That’s true, but McCarey’s real masterstroke was to make us, the audience, complicit in the children’s attitudes. The children on screen feel annoyed and burdened, and McCarey makes us feel rather irritated by the parents ourselves — until a masterfully directed moment during a bridge class, of all things, which forces us to share the children’s sudden guilty feelings. It’s no wonder that other directors like John Ford, Frank Capra, Ernst Lubitsch, Orson Welles and Jean Renoir all sung this film’s praises. Capra even wrote McCarey a fan letter.
The New York Times in 1937 gave MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW a rave review, saying it “has three qualities rarely encountered in the cinema: humanity, honesty and warmth.” But Paramount chief Adolph Zukor, who hated the film’s sad ending and had tried in vain to get McCarey to tack on a happy one, cut the director loose from Paramount when the picture became a massive box-office flop. McCarey promptly went to Columbia, made The Awful Truth (also released in 1937), and won the Oscar for Best Director. At the podium, he thanked the Academy, then said they had given him the award “for the wrong picture.”