For some reason, in our society, we are taught—if not by instruction, then by example—to discard the old. We are solely interested in the new, in the present, what is happening right now. Often, our obsessions or our problems have evaporated in a year or two, but no matter. Elderly people are relegated to nursing homes. The young are worshiped. Just try to get a bunch of kids to watch a movie from the 1940s and see what happens (now that ’80s movies are being remade, it’s getting to the point where anything from before the mid-’90s is considered a relic). What we often neglect to remember is that one day we ourselves will be old, and then we’ll be on the outside looking in.
This is where Barkley and Lucy Cooper (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi) find themselves. They are in their 70s, and the bank has foreclosed on their house. Barkley hasn’t worked in four years, and “with everything goin’ out, and nothin’ coming in, I couldn’t keep up the payments.” They’ve gathered together their children to inform them that their home is no longer their home; they were given six months to move out, but the six months are up this Tuesday. The children, led by George (Thomas Mitchell), immediately start trying to devise a plan, but they aren’t wealthy and they don’t have much extra space in their own homes. Finally, a solution is hit upon: Lucy will stay with George, his wife Anita (Fay Bainter), and their teenage daughter Rhoda (Barbara Read); and Barkley will stay with Cora (Elisabeth Risdon) and her husband Bill (Ralph Remley) in New York City. They’ll be 300 miles apart, but it won’t be forever, right?
The transition is just as rough as you’d expect. With nothing else to keep her occupied, Lucy takes to entertaining Rhoda’s friends, driving them all away. When, in a painfully uncomfortable scene, Anita is teaching her bridge class, Lucy rocks back and forth in a distractingly creaky chair, then gets a phone call from Barkley, yelling to him as if trying to force her words across the 300 miles. Barkley isn’t faring much better in New York. Though he finds a friend in a Jewish shopkeeper named Mr. Reubens (the indispensable Maurice Moscovitch), he’s dreadfully lonely. He tries to get a job, but he’s simply too old.
Make Way for Tomorrow, one of the only American films released during the Great Depression to actually tackle the harsh realities of its time, has for decades been highly spoken of by many, but seen by few. Upon release in 1937, it attracted rave reviews, but did nothing at the box office. Director Leo McCarey, having already made Duck Soup and Ruggles of Red Gap, and soon to launch Cary Grant into superstardom with The Awful Truth, was at the peak of his powers and so had the clout to get such anti-commercial fare into production at Paramount. No one at the studio was particularly enthused with the idea of such a gritty, downbeat drama; producer Adolph Zukor repeatedly argued with McCarey for a happy ending.
Indeed, the film bears little similarity plot-wise to its Old Hollywood counterparts. There are no dapper stars. Moore and Bondi, who at the time were 61 and 49 respectively, were buried under highly convincing old-age makeup. The music does not swell, and everything is not made better. It’s unusual when a major studio puts out a movie like that these days, but back then, Make Way for Tomorrow was a lone anomaly. However, for all its value, I can’t help but ponder the film’s nagging flaws. I want to be able to join the chorus hailing it as a lost masterpiece, but I can’t quite jump onboard that easily.
In its characters’ motivations and conflicts, the film is entirely realistic, and very incisive. They do not bend to the wills of any script or plot (which is to be expected of McCarey, who frequently improvised on set). But the early, stage-setting scenes are rather stiff and creaky, something the movie finds hard to shake as it moves along. And though McCarey and screenwriter Viña Delmar, working from the novel The Years Are So Long by Josephine Lawrence as well as a play by Helen and Noah Leary, make sure not to present us with any heroes or villains, I couldn’t help but be annoyed with the children and their half-baked boarding plans. Perhaps it’s just me, but I couldn’t imagine splitting my parents up, certainly not by 300 miles, no matter the financial burdens I may have to undertake. I understand that their behavior is crucial to the film, and I’m not faulting it for being unpleasant at times. For the first two-thirds, though, it occasionally veers into “old people being bulled for 90 minutes” territory.