A couple has lived contentedly together for literally half a century. They suffer the loss of their house to a bank. Their five adult children are terribly unhappy to learn this, but one has moved to California and is seldom heard from and the others supposedly don't have room to accommodate both parents. It's resolved that mom and dad will settle with two separate children, "for now." Their last night in their home is the last time they'll sleep in the same bed together.
It's not that their kids don't love them. They'll find them a place "as soon as possible," but for "a few weeks," Lucy Cooper will share her granddaughter's room, and her husband Barkley will sleep on a son's living room sofa. She's in NYC, he's in a small country town. Both somehow seem like the choices of environs should've been reversed. They speak on the phone. They write. As time lapses and they exhaust their receptions, Lucy learns that her son George and his wife Anita are entertaining relinquishing her to a nursing home, and it's resolved that Barkley will take the train to California to lodge with the unseen daughter. Oh, this is all "just for now."
The movie is so harsh it might not be filmable nowadays. Leo McCarey first turned heads with hilarity and frivolity. In the same year as this unsung Depression-era piece du resistance, he made Grant and Dunne the ultimate, matchless rom-com duo in The Awful Truth. Make Way for Tomorrow is softly perceptive about the social discomfort of the circumstances. None of the children are heartless. But Anita holds bridge classes in her living room for around 20 students. When Lucy wanders in to sit in the rocking chair, it squeaks. The players are sidetracked. When she attempts conversation, she brings up hearts, which she played as opposed to bridge. When Bark calls, what the players hear is heartbreaking. If only she'd stay in "her" room, of which the self-interested daughter is protective. Anita and the daughter alternate schlepping a jumbo picture of Bark between the bedroom and living room. When your house has been "decorated," you don't want outdated portraits.
At his son's posh residence, Bark catches a cold sleeping on that sofa. A doctor is summoned, and his daughter-in-law swiftly moves him into their bedroom so the doctor won't think they're cruel. He welcomes a visit from the one friend he's made, an old storekeeper whose response to the circumstances is impeccably encapsulated in an exchange of momentous gestures only the two old men can see. The elderly don't assimilate to the up-to-the-minute way of life. The error is in that way of life, but life wouldn't be life if it weren't indifferent. On TV, seniors are suntanned, golfing, having prepared for the future. It's easier to accept than that they fall ill, healthcare expenses evaporate their savings, and they wind up stashed in a "home." The opportune idols in those commercials aren't so camera-friendly after awhile.
Regardless, the movie's evenhanded, as far as that counts. When Lucy disturbs the bridge class, Bondi doesn't make her sweet or special. She might irritate us, too. Naturally, we constantly relate to the kids, not their parents. In our culture, we believe it correct that kids go off on their own, and parents are finally liberated to indulge their hard-earned retirement. But after a life of full nests, how reassuring is an empty one, really? The magnificent closing sweep of Make Way for Tomorrow is exquisite and makes me cry like a little girl with a skinned knee. It's easy to picture it being doused in syrup by a studio exec, being made more optimistic for us weakling moviegoers. But what transpires is breathtaking and downright heartbreaking. All hinges on the performances. Bondi was not even 50 when she played Lucy. Victor Moore was just 61. In look, motion and dialogue, they're seamlessly persuasively elderly.
Their kids coordinate for them to get together in the city before Bark boards for California, where they've "found a nice place for him." This is "only until they can get together again," naturally. These fabrications make it feasible for us to endure life. There's a family dinner arranged, but Bark and Lucy, as McCarey would put it, go their own way. What they do and how it makes us feel is a tour de force by all involved. It isn't manipulated for unearned gratification. It doesn't give us any relief. They're happy, but not deluded, not one bit.
The final chapter of this synthesis of elegy and rhapsody rests on unrestrained empathy between filmmakers and characters. These two people have spent an entire life together, reared a family and lived in their own home. They've preserved a shared nobility and they're not about to become foolish now. How tenderly, and with what value, they treat one another. How some strangers, over-involved in their own dealings and indulges, notice this and momentarily see their own prospects. These strangers can be caring, transiently at least, though they too could have folks they don't have space for.
What's so enormously hard-hitting about the film is its even-tempered stare. It serenely, almost neutrally, sees the predicaments and how they unravel without the slightest slant or bias. The most commanding films often just show us proceedings without directing our feelings toward a planned result. This is also the case with the best acting. It's extraordinary that a movie this real and unyielding was made by Hollywood in 1937.
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