Published on May 7th, 2014 | by Noah Dimitrie0
The Criterion Cut – Make Way for Tomorrow
In this week’s instalment of The Criterion Cut, Noah Dimitrie takes a look at Leo McCarey’s Make Way For Tomorrow, a poignant meditation on aging.
At the 10th Academy Awards in 1938, Leo McCarey (Duck Soup) won Best Director for The Awful Truth. In a press conference afterwards, he exclaimed that he received the prestigious honour for the wrong film. In his mind, and now in the minds of countless film fans, Make Way for Tomorrow was a film of much more personal and emotional significance. He considered it his masterpiece, a film he genuinely felt honoured to be recognized for. Unfortunately, few were listening. It reminds me of Stardust Memories, in which Woody Allen’s admirers often remark that they, “admire his films; especially the earlier, funnier ones.” How true of Leo’s career. I think he would’ve liked that movie.
Produced under a tight budget for Paramount in 1937, Make Way for Tomorrow was the film McCarey felt he was born to make. It tells the story of an elderly couple named Barkley and Lucy who face eviction due to their lack of savings for retirement. They plead with their children to take them in; the children reluctantly accept, but the couple are forced to split up “for only a few months.” Lucy bunks with her son’s family while Barkley stays with his daughter.
Once they arrive, they’re immediately made to feel like outsiders. Daily life is different in these homes. The families’ routines are upset by the old timers, who can’t seem to do anything without receiving a condescending glare or at the very least an eye roll. Lucy’s rocking chair brings her daughter-in-law’s bridge class to a grinding halt. She talks too loud into the telephone when her husband calls. It reminded me of all the ways we grow impatient with elderly folks in the ever-changing wasteland of technology that they attempt to face. There may not be such a thing as a completely timeless film, but I can say with certainty that Make Way for Tomorrow comes pretty damn close. I, personally, don’t recall another instance in which a film from 1937 reminded me of a such a contemporary situation.
Things escalate even further for the elderly couple as Barkley comes down with a mild cold. It’s a poor excuse to kick him out, but his children take it. They suggest he move in with his other daughter in California for his health. One problem: there isn’t room for the both of them. This is where the film hits its emotional center, as Lucy and Barkley spend their final few hours together, touring through New York, reliving old memories though they will only be apart “for a few months.” Deep down, they know that may very well be a lie. A lesser director would’ve hit you with all the usual punches, forcing the film into fits of sentimental overload. McCarey does the opposite, releasing the couple to meander around town and rediscover the love they always had for each other. The moment is never forced; rather, it builds with every conversation, every memory. They see the hustle and bustle of the town. They revisit the hotel they spent their honeymoon in. In a sea of young faces, they are anachronisms. As they sit at the bar, drinking “two old fashions for two old fashioned people,” they bicker about the day of the week they were married on. Was it Tuesday or Wednesday? It may seem trivial, but to them, it’s all that matters in that moment.
The film’s screenplay is quite melancholic, a trait fairly unfamiliar to Tinseltown in a time where optimism and romance were in vogue. It treats its characters with dignity, not like caricatures. Even the old couple’s children, with all their selfishness and superficiality, still feel relatable at times. We can all understand the awkwardness of change brought on by someone who just doesn’t understand the way things are done. “We’re just too busy right now.” When will they ever not be?
But the film’s biggest strength is its two leads, played by Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore. At the time they were 61 and 49, respectively, but you’d have a hard time believing either one of them were under 75 by looking at them. Both actors capture the nuances of old age perfectly, from Barkley’s slow, Chaplin-esque walk to the look of misplacement in their eyes as they see the world around them. When the two of them are on screen together, you can’t look away; their believability as a couple married for fifty years will simply stun you.
Leo McCarey made Make Way for Tomorrow after the death of his father. Out of guilt for not being a better son, or out of fascination with the lives of two people that time has simply forgotten, no one knows. What we do know is that McCarey’s heart was in the material, and he proves it by creating such an unflinchingly haunting and timeless portrayal of old age and a society that fails to slow down just a little bit for them. It’s said that the film had a great influence on Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, one of the greatest of all films. It’s certainly understandable and honestly quite comforting to know. The Academy may not have been listening, but at least somebody was.