Make Way for Tomorrow

08/15/2010

U.S.A. / 1937 / English

Directed by Leo McCarey

With Beulah Bondi, Victor Moore, Fay Bainter

Still from 'Make Way for Tomorrow'In the sitting room of a small rural homestead covered in snow and icicles, an aging couple have gathered four of their grown children, who now live in far-flung places and with lives of their own, after a long period of separation. There are two sons and two daughters, with a third daughter who lives off in California not present. Bluntly the father tells them that he and their mother have fallen behind on the payments for their house and will soon have to vacate. And so begins a heartfelt fable of graceful humanity, under whose amiably presented exterior lies a robust and lucid commentary on modernization and the responsibility of one generation to those who raised them.Drawn from a novel by Josephine Lawrence, the film was the inspiration for Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), and in it director McCarey makes ample use of improvisation and the textures of everyday life to build upon a story that is all the more emotionally stirring for its quiet and unhurried style. In the first scene alone he sweetly and adroitly condenses the glibness, distracted humor, and veiled jibes of a family reunion – and from there allows things to gracefully fall apart.

The parents reveal to the children that their six months to leave their house is nearly up, and there is a mad scramble to find them a place to stay, each child looking supportive but hiding his or her own trepidations. The soundtrack changes from wintry and bucolic to fast-paced and brassy, we see a high rise apartment building with a similarly tall list of names on its elevator, and we know we are now in New York City. The mother, Lucy, is staying with their wealthy, eldest son George in a swanky penthouse. In some small, unnamed town Barkley (Bark), the father, is sleeping on the couch of the dour and controlling Cora. As is all too common, the women of the younger generation – the couple’s daughters and daughter-in-law – wind up playing the bulldogs in most situations while the men can come off as well-meaning (but aren’t really any kinder).

Lucy almost immediately begins to wear on the nerves of George’s wife Anita, a socialite and instructor in the game of bridge. Anita interprets Lucy’s sweet but misguided involvement in the life of her granddaughter, the smart and precocious Rhoda, as meddling, and the situation becomes thorny. Rhoda, finding it difficult to be a free spirit while sharing a room with her grandmother, also shows signs of resistance. But everyone grins and bears it because the current arrangement is only meant as a temporary fix; Nellie, the daughter who married money and is the most openly conceited and diffident of the four, has made a vague promise to arrange a permanent living situation once she has convinced her unpleasant husband to have pity on her poor parents. In the film the characters who are higher on the gradient of material wealth – that is, more able to help – also seem more abstracted, less likely to sympathize.

But McCarey is not wholly condemning the children for their selfishness. They could make the effort, and they want to, but are too far gone in the rat race of individual gain to confidently invite their parents into their homes for the long term. What the director is vilifying is the time that they live in, for what it has turned them into. The parents too have their values and priorities distorted by it, oversensitive to their burdensome presence in their children’s lives, they initially try to go on being independent for as long as possible. The result is that their six months, before the bank forecloses on their house, is nearly up by the time they even tell their kids about it. During their three-month separation they have to get used to life apart from one another, Bark’s main respite coming from hanging out with a Jewish shopkeeper. Lucy feels comfort in talking the ears off of anyone Rhoda invites to the apartment, and she also becomes close with the family’s African-American maid, unsurprisingly named Mamie, who is kind in return even though the old woman has cost her time she would normally spend with her own husband.

Still from 'Make Way for Tomorrow'The film’s primary focus is on the difference between the era in which the old couple began their life together and the one that they now live in, to a much greater extent than it is about the rift between the generations, or between urbanity and provinciality. Together Bark and Lucy recall a time when it was common for extended families to share a household, the retired parents cared for by their adult children. With the gradual dissolution of such large family units, the elderly found themselves finally without the age-old support structures on which they had relied in days gone by. Make Way for Tomorrow looks at a country deeply conflicted with the processes of modernization, the old people who were once valued and respected now becoming like useless appendages to their families, more burdens than treasures. Social Security, brought about just two years before the film’s release, was meant to give retirees a way to live independently, striking a sort of compromise between the old values and the rapid changes occurring in American society. The film, socially astute without needing to be explicit, supports such a measure by showing what life is like wishing to live on one’s own, and the kids cannot lend their support without compromising their own modern and active lives.

The final sequence of scenes provides something of a departure from the human folly and awkward misunderstanding that characterize the first three quarters of the film, by injecting it with some understated but heartfelt escapism. The old couple, who have been separated for longer than ever before, get reunited in New York City, still uncertain of their future together. Their plan, to stay together no matter what happens, has become quite a bit more complicated. Early on Lucy tells Rhoda that, as an old person, joy can only be divined if one is in the privileged position of not having to face facts (about the world, about mortality, about one’s own accomplishments). As Lucy and Bark tour New York City, where they had their honeymoon fifty years earlier, they seem to be trying to hold on to that position for as long as possible, even for a few hours more.

Together they walk through a fantasy city where a car salesman tries to lure them but ends up giving them a free ride to their marital hotel, where the new manager buys them dinner and drinks, and the bandleader plays a slow waltz just for them. McCarey, quite fond of his two characters at this point, is granting them their dreams and polished reminiscences one last time. In an otherwise serious film with only shades of the screwball comedy, Marx Brothers, and Harold Lloyd films for which he was known, the ending provide some surreal moments that are nonetheless genuine and sweet. It is the opposite of the formula of so many comedies that are silly most of the way through and then become quite serious at the end. The unnervingly kind strangers that come out of the woodwork at the end do not mind indulging the old folks. Similarly Anita’s wealthy guests who came to her apartment for bridge lessons are at first annoyed but ultimately charmed by Lucy’s rocking-chair antics and old-fashioned bumpkin ways. There is the sense that they are well-liked by these people who do not have to care for them – a bit like enjoying playing with other people’s two-year-olds, actually.

This lightness is shadowed by the sometimes heartbreaking reality of the actual strain that the situation places on the family, which is treated in very plain terms. While indeed McCarey is criticizing the wealthy, the avaricious, the slick and modern, he is doing so gently. No one character is an outright villain. The film is too clever for that, too articulate. Mostly it acts as a statement against the constant need in America to replace that which is old, because the ultimate conclusion of that mentality is that there are people who become sidelined, swept into the dustbin. And these are the people, so the argument goes, who should still be a welcome force in our lives – or if that doesn’t work out, be given the resources to actively continue their own, fruitful and happy. The incredibly sweet and tender moments that Bark and Lucy share show that all they really want is to be together. Beyond that, their needs are quite simple. Make Way for Tomorrow champions their simplicity, kindliness, and their determined effort to regain, where once they fell behind.

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One Response to “Make Way for Tomorrow”

  1. Mary Ann said

    Sounds like a very moving film.

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