In the words of Orson Welles to Peter Bogdanovich in reference to
Leo McCarey’s Make Way For Tomorrow: “Oh my God, that is the saddest
movie ever made.” Enough said.
Old people generally do not get a good deal when it comes to how they are portrayed in films. From the likes of Cocoon to Grumpy Old Men,
they are often characterised as doddering, forgetful, knackered and so
on. That is not to say that, in the last few years, there have not been
some meatier roles, from Driving Miss Daisy (with Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman) to the excellent Notes On A Scandal (starring Dame Judi Dench).
Even animation has done its turn with the lead character of Carl
Fredricksen, in the superb ‘Up’. But boy, does the industry make a big
deal about it each time, as if it something new. It’s not. Make Way For Tomorrow was on it, way back in 1937.
Best known for directing comedies and credited for putting together the most famous duo of all – Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, director Leo McCarey (Duck Soup, The Awful Truth, An Affair to Remember)
bills Make Way For Tomorrow as the favourite of all his films, for
which he waived his salary to work upon. Yet, most people have never
heard of it. In fact, despite its critical claim, its release met with
lukewarm box-office sales, mainly down to the fact that Paramount
refused to promote it due to its subject matter in the Depression-era.
However, it is widely regarded as one of the best films to have come out
of Hollywood at that time.
Based on a novel, the tale is of an elderly couple who have hit upon hard times, for which character actors Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi don
makeup to age them beyond their actual years. What is remarkable is
that Bondi was only in her 40s at the time but is convincing as a lady
well into her 70s.The chemistry between the two is remarkable.
Bark and Cora Cooper’s house has been foreclosed by the bank and
they are forced separate and to move into their children’s homes in the
city. The ungrateful offspring deem the couple’s lodging with them to be
an imposition. ‘Pa’ ends up is living with his daughter Cora, whilst
‘Ma’ lodges with son George in New York. Not unsurprisingly, both do not
fair very well. Lucy feels that she is getting in the way of her young
family and Bark’s health starts to deterioate which sees him being sent
off to live with another part of the Cooper family in California, away
from the cold winters. Before he leaves, the couple are briefly
reunited, facing an uncertain future.
A well-penned screenplay, the winning element of this film is the great subtlies at work with deep characterisations that
one can identify within ourselves and those around us. Take the Cooper
children, for instance, who make excuse after excuse as to why they
cannot house the pair. They are not portrayed as out-and-out evil
characters. Simply, self-serving adults who want to get on with their
lives without any imposition. As for the couple themselves, they do as
most old people do. They do not want to impose themselves upon anyone
and try to adapt to the situations they are plunged into.
Unrelentingly unsentimental, yet maintaining a balance of pathos and
levity unseen in not only American studio pictures but most of the rest
of world cinema, Make Way for Tomorrow is a powerful story that is as
relevant today as it was back then. The Masters of Cinema Series
presents the heartbreaking, beautiful film for the first time on Blu-ray
anywhere in the world. Now, its release will provide it with its long-awaited and much deserved attention. It is a film that, to give Welles the last word, “could make a stone cry.”