Monday, December 17, 2012

Make Way For Tomorrow (1937)

Director: Leo McCarey


If there is a filmmaker in Hollywood that rivaled the ability to produce deeply heartfelt motion pictures the way Frank Capra had in the 1930s it would Leo McCarey starting with his uncomfortably stirring film Make Way for Tomorrow. One of the honest tear jerking pictures to come out of the 1930s, Make Way for Tomorrow is a featured filled with real life situations that were troubling Americans in the earlier years of the 20th century, especially during the years of the Depression. A tale of an elderly couple needing to rely of their children in a drama would be a difficult story to sell, but with it being filled with moments that would tug at the heart strings of any loving family member this picture is truly one of those treasures to be discovered by film lovers throughout time.

Make Way for Tomorrow is the drama of an elderly couple that is forced to rely on their children to take them in, obliging the couple of over 50 years to split up. Barkley and Lucy Cooper (played by Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi) break the news that they lost their house to the bank forcing their five grown up children to bicker about who is to take in and care for them. Due to lack of space Bark and Lucy are forced to split up, living with separate children until Bark is able to find some sort of work so they might be independent again. Bark comes down ill and with suggestion from family makes the decision of moving in with his daughter in California, while Lucy becomes such a bother to her children and granddaughter that they look at moving her to a retirement home. Knowing that they will be even further separated, this time by thousands of miles, Bark and Lucy enjoy one last day out in New York City visiting old spots they once shared in happy memories of the past, leaving their ungrateful children alone for what would have been their last meal together. The film concludes with one of the most emotional scenes as Bark and Lucy bid each other goodbye at the train station, knowing but not admitting this is the last time they will ever be with each other. Bark and Lucy thank each other for every moment they ever shared as Bark boards the train that takes him forever away from his soul mate.

It is a stirring picture that plays more to real life than to the glitz and glamour of being a Hollywood motion picture. It is a slow film filled with conversations as the lives of these two unfold to the audience revealing that underneath these two people well past their prime still burns a romance of two lovers that happened to share their lives with each other. As the picture unfolds Bark and Lucy, played by usual supporting actors Moore and Bondi in very convincing make-up to make them much older, become to the audience less and less two elderly people that cannot further contribute to the world, and more reflections of their inner selves, loving partners and parents who have only been slowed by time, but as sharp as ever. To discover their feelings is this manner and then see how their children react to them cuts deep into one who watches the picture.

The children, lead by George (Thomas Mitchell) are not necessarily bad people, but just people trying to get by on their own. They are not villains, but ordinary grown up children that love their parents, but find their neediness as a new complication in their lives, as any person could understand. It is such a simple film, but at the same time a very complicated subject that can touch anyone. The train station scene is one of cinema’s most touching moments with a goodbye that can bring instant tears to audience’s eyes. In the movies one has seen many tragic death scenes, but this simple goodbye forever, of which they do without admitting that it is in fact for forever, far surpasses any death scene seen before, as these two are still very much alive and wish to continue on together.

One would not guess that before this feature Leo McCarey was a veteran director of some of the very best comedians. Credits including The Kid From Spain and Duck Soup, working with the likes of the Marx Brothers, Mae West, Harold Lloyd, and Eddie Cantor, McCarey makes the turn to the dramatic and hits it out of the park here with Make Way for Tomorrow. His direction with the superior acting of Moore, Bondi, Mitchell, and other supporting cast pull you into the slow story of this separated couple only to see them be taken away from each other forever. McCarey’s views on how the world should in his mind’s eye heavily influenced the story of the picture, producing moments of kindness one would never think would happen in New York City, even in the 1930s Receiving free car rides and complimentary meals at fine restaurants from the likes of a generous manager is difficult to think of, but a world many wished they lived in. McCarey believed in the need for kindness and created a world and moments of pure kindheartedness that warms hearts, accentuating the love of Bark and Lucy.

McCarey would go to the Academy Awards that year and win for best director, but it was for his work in picture The Awful Truth with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne released later on in 1937. McCarey would take to the stage to accept the Oscar only to state to the audience “Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture,” hinting at his own admiration for Make Way for Tomorrow as his superior work. McCarey would always reference Make Way for Tomorrow as perhaps his favorite film he ever made.

Critics and filmmakers through the years love the feature, but would continue to state how sad the picture is. Perhaps that is why the film would not as well recognized as seen with its lack of representation at the Academy Awards or other major critical awards. Despite the studio wishing for a happier ending McCarey stuck to the original down ending that is so sad, yet so poetic. It is not an uplifting picture, but it is a great one. Its admirations would even span American boarders and cross oceans, inspiring Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story.

Make Way for Tomorrow was a film for its time. America was years deep into the Depression, where finances and turmoil over the lack of funds for older American was a common issue. President Franklin D. Roosevelt around this period would pass Social Security Act, aiding people of a certain age with funds when retirement comes upon them. It was one of his many pieces in Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, and would continue as very controversial subject matter even years after it took effect. Social Security would aid those like Bark and Lucy, but at the time of the film when elderly people were out of funds they were left to the charities of their children, or even worse situations. For this reason the picture encapsulates a different period in America, but even with social security it is still very much an issue.

In 2010 Make Way for Tomorrow would find its title gracing the list of preserved films in the National Film Registry in the Library of Congress for later generations to discover and honor as a treasure of American motion pictures. Leo McCarey would continue to make pictures with deeper subject matter in the future, but this particular film should be honored in itself as a very moving picture that honestly deserves the tears is will continue to bring to many.

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