1937. Starring Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi. Directed by Leo McCarey.
Leo McCarey’s Make Way For Tomorrow is known by more than one critic as “the saddest movie ever made.” I think that claim could be challenged if you consider sadness to be tragic, cruel and the result of the too-often human disregard for humanity. In that case, you’ve got Schindler’s List, The Killing Fields and Fires on the Plain to compete with. No, the kind of sadness that permeates Make Way For Tomorrow is a sentimental weariness concerning the passing of time and the changing role of parents as time overtakes them.
Bart (Victor Moore) and Lucy (Beulah Bondi) portray the aged parents of five adult children. The couple are losing their house and longtime home to an indifferent bank. The children are shocked, and scramble to figure out who will take in each of the parents, but it quickly becomes apparent that they are all selfish and intolerant of such an imposition. Finally, the eldest son makes room for the mother and the father is sent away to live with a daughter.
Separated and isolated, they don’t fare well in their new homes. The mother is a burden to the social life of her son and daughter-in-law (absolutely ruining bridge night, heaven forbid, and sending the only clean tuxedo shirt to the cleaners). She also fails to be a benefit to her granddaughter, a somewhat slutty teenager who runs off to meet various men of varying ages. Meanwhile, up north, the father pathetically entertains hope of finding work in his new town, and succumbs to several colds that require nursing by the suffering in-laws.
Bart and Lucy live for the next communication allowed between them, through loud phone calls and hard-to-read letters, and their children take no joy in having them around. When the decision is made to send the father off to live with the prodigal daughter in California — for his health — both realize that they may never see each other again.
According to Peter Bogdanovich, who provides some history of the film on the Criterion Collection disc, when director McCarey was given the Academy Award for The Awful Truth — made the same year — he said, “You gave me the award for the wrong picture.” I’m not going to take up that argument, but will say that McCarey has an very deft touch in dealing with what could be a maudlin, melodramatic story. Instead, he gives us a bittersweet but honest tale of growing old and then getting out of the way, and finds room to let in some much-needed humor. Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi play characters much older than their own age, but their portrayals are genuine and complex. Their kids, who could come off as real villains, are instead just a bit incompetent and caught up in their silly modern lives, circa 1936.
Much has been discussed about the ending, which won’t tug so much on your heart as pull and twist. The revealing scenes to me, however, are those when the old couple — useless to all whom they trouble — are briefly reunited. In those scenes, the sweet old couple encounter many strangers while wandering around New York City on the last day they will spend together in their long lives. Knowing them only for minutes, those strangers show kindness and appreciation for those the old-timers, who are full of stories and clearly in love after 50 years of marriage. Why their children do not see them in this light is the saddest thing about the film, and may be the awful truth that McCarey tries to show the rest of us.