It seems like Leo McCarey and this film for that matter often get lost in the shuffle. In his day he was a highly successful and well thought of director of such classics as The Awful Truth and Going My Way. However, his moving drama Make Way For Tomorrow is now often overshadowed by a similar film that used it as inspiration, Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953).
I will not pass judgment on which film I like more. In fact, to even begin to make a decision I would have to go back to both. However, this film opens by restating the 5th commandment. Honor thy father and thy mother. After all, this film is certainly about the gap between generations, parents with children, grandparents with grandchildren, but at its core is this main concern. Honor thy father and thy mother.
The film opens in the home of Barkley (Victor Moore) and Lucy Cooper (Beulah Bondi). 4 of their 5 grown children are gathered together on the request of their parents who have something to tell them. Because their father has not been able to work, the bank is taking their house and so they will be displaced. Thus, the story is set up as the kids worry about what to do, because no one feels capable of taking both parents. Finally, it is decided that eldest son George (Thomas Mitchell) will take mother, and one of the sisters will take father.
It is difficult on everyone. The old folks are split up for one of the first times in their 50 years of marriage. Meanwhile, grandma disrupts bridge lessons, makes life more of a nuisance on George’s daughter, and forces the maid to take on more hours. It does not make anyone angry at first, but it begins rubbing and chafing. Creating bitterness and annoyance which is arguably worse. Things reach the breaking point when George’s peeved wife finds out that her daughter is rendezvousing with men, and she is not happy at all when grandma confesses to knowing about it. She loses her temper and grandma apologizes. Seeing a letter from a retirement home she quietly decides it would be better for all if she simply moves there.
Her husband does not fare much better, and the harsh New York weather is taking a toll on his health. Furthermore, his daughter is obviously getting tired with him as her patience continues to wear thin. Mr. Cooper does make a friend in a kindly old shop owner (Maurice Moscovitch), but he soon is turned off as well. Finally, his daughter decides to send their father out of California. She says it’s for his health, but the real reason is she wants him off their hands so her other sister can deal with him.
With this new turn of events, Barkley and Lucy have one last meeting set up so they can spend time together before he is sent off to California. This is the most touching part of the entire film, because underlying this oasis is the doubt that they might not see each other again. In the wake of that proposition, they have sort of a second honeymoon. They ditch the kids and have a magical evening just the two of them, reliving their youth and remembering the olden days. The miracle of this sequence is that everyone seems to finally understand them, appreciate them, and really honor them. They are offered a ride in an automobile and are met by the hotel manager who offers them drinks and listens to their wonderful stories of times past. Even the conductor plays a slow waltz just for the two of them. It’s a beautiful extended moment that is made especially moving in contrast to the earlier scenes. These are two people who, despite their advance years, are still very much in love. It speaks to the importance that marriage holds in the life of some people. In certain circumstances it is not a shallow event, but a lifelong friendship that carries so much weight.
When the time comes, the two lovebirds say goodbye at the trainstation and we don’t know what happens to them. We can guess certainly, but McCarey leaves a sweeter taste in our mouths before finishing with a realistic ending. It’s beautiful, moving, and tearful, but not in an over dramatic sort of way. In the mundane, sorrowful way that seems to reflect the rhythms of real life. Beulah Bondi was featured in some many great films, but I’m convinced that this was her greatest performance as an individual. Victor Moore was a worthy companion for her as well. However, my favorite character was probably the shop keeper Max, because he was such a personable man in a sea of grumbling and annoyance.