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John Ford called it one of his favorites. Orson Welles said "it would make a stone cry." Jean Renoir and Ernst Lubitsch were also huge admirers. Frank Capra even wrote a fan letter to its director, Leo McCarey. And McCarey himself said it was his favorite of his own work, high praise indeed from the director of Duck Soup (1933), Love Affair (1939), and The Awful Truth (1937). "If I really have talent," McCarey said, "this is where it appears."
The subject of all this praise and pride? Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), a picture high indeed on the list of Hollywood classics esteemed by filmmakers and loved by ardent movie fans lucky to have seen it, yet virtually unknown to anyone else. It's arguably one of the most unjustly forgotten pictures ever to come out of the studio system.
The movie is about a sweet, elderly couple (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi) who lose their home to a bank foreclosure and are forced to move in with their grown children. No one child has room for them both, however, so two of the five children, living 300 miles apart, each take one parent. Moore and Bondi split up -- temporarily, everyone agrees. But the children's own lives, spouses, kids and selfish attitudes slowly turn the parents' presence into a burden, and eventually there is talk of old-age homes and distant trips.
The subject of old age and its effect upon the parent-child relationship is an uncomfortable and unsettling subject for many people. It's also a universal one, and why Make Way for Tomorrow strikes a deep chord with so many who see it. Few other American films have dealt with this topic, and Make Way for Tomorrow is probably the best of the bunch because of its honesty and lack of manipulative stickiness. It portrays the realities of dealing with aging parents -- the responsibility, the inconvenience, the duty, the guilt -- with tremendous humanity, heartbreak and even humor. McCarey once said, "it was the saddest story I ever shot; at the same time very funny. It's difficult for me to talk about, but I think it was very beautiful."
As film historian Tag Gallagher has pointed out, part of McCarey's brilliance here is in making the audience complicit in the children's reactions to the parents. The children feel annoyed and burdened; McCarey makes us feel the same way until a masterfully directed moment during a bridge class, of all things, which causes us to share the children's sudden guilty feelings.
By the last act of this story, our subjective alignment is firmly with Bondi and Moore, which is essential to making the film's final 26 minutes one of the most moving extended sequences in American cinema. Events culminate in a magnificent ending that stays true to what has come before -- and which cost Leo McCarey his contract at Paramount.
Make Way for Tomorrow is based on a 1934 novel called Years Are So Long by Josephine Lawrence and an unpublished play based on that novel, by Helen and Nolan Leary. The screenplay is by Vina Delmar. But the real inspiration for the picture came from a much more personal place: the death of Leo McCarey's father. McCarey made this picture immediately afterwards as a way to honor his father and his parents' entire generation.
McCarey is a director whose visual style is difficult to pin down; he tended to compose his films rather straightforwardly. Perhaps his most notable trait, aside from his unquestioned expertise in comedy timing honed during countless Laurel and Hardy and Charley Chase shorts, is his ability to mix drama and comedy scenes effectively -- one of the most difficult tasks in directing.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, McCarey said, "This picture was certainly a heart-tugger, 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."
Bondi and Moore are indeed tremendous here. Ironically, it's their presence in the lead roles that also has contributed to the movie becoming so forgotten. Bondi was a character actress who played mothers and grandmothers in countless films, including Ma Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life (1946). (She played James Stewart's mother four times on screen.) Make Way for Tomorrow features her greatest role and performance, making it ironic that she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1936 and 1938, but not for this film in 1937. Amazingly, Bondi was only 48 when she made this -- just four years older than Thomas Mitchell, who plays her son.
61-year-old Victor Moore was known as a vaudeville comedian and most often appeared in comedies and musicals, but this screen role, in which he was cast against type, was his favorite. He later wrote, "The theme made a deep impression on us... We became so absorbed in our parts that we never knew or cared when quitting time came. I felt my role so keenly that sometimes I couldn't prevent tears from coming to my eyes. 'Barkley mustn't feel sorry for himself,' Leo would say. 'Let the audience do the crying.' The extras, grips, cameramen and propmen were so moved that several of them told Beulah Bondi...that they had just written long-delayed letters to their parents. One old lady, after hanging up the extras' clothes on a line, said to me, 'You and Beulah are acting this story. I'm living it.'"
Moore also said that studio chief Adolph Zukor was on set for much of the production, trying to convince McCarey to add a happy ending. But McCarey was steadfast and refused to budge. True to Paramount's concerns, Make Way for Tomorrow was a box-office flop despite strong reviews. It's very possible that the studio purposefully didn't promote the film properly due to McCarey's refusal to be a team player. (Opening the film just before Mother's Day was probably not the best timing.) Be that as it may, McCarey was immediately cut loose from Paramount.
He got the last laugh, however, by signing with Columbia and quickly making The Awful Truth, one of the best screwball comedies of all time. It not only became the top-grossing film of the year but earned McCarey an Academy Award nomination for Best Director. When McCarey won the award, he stepped up to the podium, thanked the Academy, and said that they had given him the award "for the wrong picture."
Producer: Leo McCarey, Adolph Zukor (producer)
Director: Leo McCarey
Screenplay: Via Delmar (writer); Josephine Lawrence (novel "The Years Are So Long"); Helen Leary, Nolan Leary (play)
Cinematography: William C. Mellor
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, Bernard Herzbrun
Music: George Antheil, Victor Young
Film Editing: LeRoy Stone
Cast: Victor Moore (Barkley 'Pa' Cooper), Beulah Bondi (Lucy 'Ma' Cooper), Fay Bainter (Anita Cooper), Thomas Mitchell (George Cooper), Porter Hall (Harvey Chase), Barbara Read (Rhoda Cooper), Maurice Moscovitch (Max Rubens), Elisabeth Risdon (Cora Payne), Minna Gombell (Nellie Chase), Ray Mayer (Robert Cooper).
BW-91m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Jeremy Arnold
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