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.
Yet in the last 30 minutes, Make Way for Tomorrow transcends whatever faults it may have. McCarey ditches the kids, leaving Ma and Pa Cooper alone together, wandering through the city. They remember the hotel they went to on their honeymoon 50 years ago, and they find it different than it was before, but still standing. They drink together, they dance, they reaffirm their love for one another. Despite admiring the first two acts, I was not expecting to be moved on this level. There is no other word to describe the delicate duet Moore and Bondi perform but "sublime." It is here that the movie began to remind me, in a way, of the work of the Italian neo-realists. The Coopers are merely together, and we are left to gaze upon their relationship, and the actions of those around them. So much depends on these final moments, and McCarey, Moore, and Bondi deliver effortlessly. By the final shot, as Barkley and Lucy step aside to make way for tomorrow, I was surprised to find myself crying.