Elderly couple Barkley and Lucy Cooper (Victor Moore, Beulah Bondi) have some bad news for their adult children: They’ve lost possession of their house, having fallen behind in their payments on it since Barkley stopped working four years earlier. The bank gave them six months to move out, but that time is almost up, and they’ve made no plans for the future. “Your father and I were hoping that something would turn up and we wouldn’t have to tell you at all,” Lucy explains. After some argument amongst themselves, the children come up with a solution. Daughter Nellie (Minna Gombell) “can practically promise” that she’ll be able to provide a home for both of her parents in three months; in the meantime, Lucy will stay with the couple’s son George (Thomas Mitchell) and Barkley with another daughter, Cora (Elisabeth Risdon). Although this arrangement makes sense in theory, it soon proves challenging — even painful — for everyone involved. It’s not easy for the different generations to live together, and that makes it all the harder for Barkley and Lucy to live apart.
According to the blurb on the back cover of the Criterion edition, Leo McCarey’s 1937 film Make Way for Tomorrow was an inspiration for Yasujirô Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953). Massive Ozu fan that I am, I certainly saw parallels between the two works (as well as another Ozu movie, 1941’s Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family, about a widow and her unmarried daughter being passed from one child’s household to the next). Tokyo Story concerns an elderly couple visiting their adult offspring in Japan’s capital city, only to find — like the Coopers — that they don’t fit into their children and grandchildren’s lives. A few moments in Make Way for Tomorrow are especially reminiscent of Ozu’s film (or vice versa): Barkley and his friend Max (Maurice Moscovitch) discussing the difficulties and disappointments of parenthood, George trying to foist Lucy off on his sister for the evening because she’s inconvenient to have around.
Oddly enough — or maybe not so oddly, really — I also found myself thinking of a screwball comedy: McCarey’s other film released in 1937, The Awful Truth. Dissimilar though they may appear on the surface, the two films can be seen as mirror images. In The Awful Truth, a young husband and wife (the latter of whom is named Lucy) intend to divorce but discover that they can’t stay away from each other; in Make Way for Tomorrow, an older husband and wife (the latter of whom is named Lucy) intend to reunite but discover that they can’t be together. Make Way for Tomorrow is the more serious of the two, to be sure, but I was pleasantly surprised by how humorous it often is, as I went into it expecting heavy melodrama or cloying sentimentality.
One of the many aspects of the film that I appreciated was the way we, as viewers, can understand the younger characters’ frustration with Barkley and Lucy and their new living arrangements: he puts up an embarrassing fuss when a youthful doctor (Louis Jean Heydt) comes to examine him, she disrupts George’s wife’s (Fay Bainter) bridge class by sitting in the same room in her creaking rocking chair. Lucy’s presence even negatively affects George’s maid, Mamie (Louise Beavers), who can no longer get a night off because Lucy doesn’t go out like the other members of the family. It’s not an easy situation for anyone; that said, our sympathies are apt to lie with the old couple, for whom it’s worst of all. Their love for each other, after fifty years of marriage, is sweet and deeply moving — this is particularly true near the end, when they sort of relive their honeymoon — and that makes their separation terribly painful to watch. They deserve better. Perhaps their children could have done more for them, or they could have made plans as soon as they lost their house, but as things stand, they have very few options. “When you’re seventy, well, you don’t care about dancing, and you don’t think about parties anymore, and about the only fun you have left is pretending that there ain’t any facts to face,” Lucy tells her teenage granddaughter, Rhoda (Barbara Read). “So would you mind if I just kind of went on pretending?” Of course, the facts have to be faced eventually, hard facts — and, as the similarities with Ozu’s films illustrate, those hard facts are universal.
This post is part of the 2017 Blind Spot Series, hosted by The Matinee. My full list can be found here.