Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow has been one of those Holy Grail type films—a movie with an excellent reputation, but one that has been completely unavailable on home video in the U.S. That’s all changed thanks to the recent Criterion release of the film on DVD. It looks fantastic, but even more importantly, it lives up to the hype.
Married for fifty years with five children, Barkley and Lucy Cooper have been caught in the throes of the Great Depression. They’ve lost their house. Calling four of their five children to them for the announcement (the fifth lives in far off California), the parents matter-of-factly deliver the news to a shocked and slightly put out group of kids. Quickly Bark gets shuffled off to one kid’s house while Lucy goes to another’s—no one seems to have enough room for both of them—in the hopes that a third child will take them both in after a few months. But that time never comes.
The film spends its first hour detailing this separation, its painful consequences for the elderly couple, and the upheavals it introduces into the lives of their children. After so many years in the presence of one another, both Lucy and Bark have developed comfortable patterns in their lives. So when Lucy, used to keeping house, tries and fails at helping out around her new home, she angers her son, his family, and even their housekeeper. When Bark takes ill for longer than usual, he becomes nearly helpless, wanting only the care of his wife to the frustration of his frazzled daughter. The kids have little time or patience for any of it. One disappears completely from the film after the announcement. Another refuses to take them both after promising to do so. The two who keep the parents never lose an opportunity to find a way to move them on to another location.
While the kids come out of all this looking worse than the parents (and rightly so), McCarey wisely avoids portraying any of them too negatively. They each possess their own flaws, the filmmakers recognizing the inherent difficulties of normal people living in confined spaces with one another. Nothing overly dramatic is needed to underline this point because this film portrays well-drawn characters that are fully alive. The conflicts, therefore, arise naturally.
However, the shift that takes place for the final half-hour moves this film from astutely observed family drama to, plain and simple, masterpiece. From a group of dour, irritated, aggravated, and impatient people living in various cities, the film brings the old couple back together in New York City for one fleeting day—Bark is soon to be shuttled off to a daughter’s house in California. Bark and Lucy enjoy several hours together without their kids and in the city, reminiscing about their last trip there—fifty years before, on their honeymoon. All of a sudden, the confined spaces of the first hour open up magnificently with a walk outdoors, a car ride, a posh hotel, and a dance that tops off the magical moment.
It is in the contrast between two worlds that the film holds its greatest power. Gone is the spirit of bitter ungratefulness; now is the time for kindness and thanksgiving. Gone is the yearning for what cannot be seen; now the object of affection is in full view. Gone is the absence of one’s greatest love; now it is completely present.
While this half-hour is certainly powerful, McCarey’s film is too smart to avoid the inevitable. Part of the power of that magical thirty minutes comes from the knowledge that it will all soon end. When it does, McCarey handles the moment with such grace and simplicity that it brings a tear even at the remembrance of it. As Lucy stares off somewhere beyond the frame at the train pulling her husband away from her, a haunting pallor spreads across her face as the hope of the recent moment fades.
What will tomorrow bring? Of that we can never be certain, the final image seems to say. And so we rely on the memory of moments now past in the anticipation that we might live to have others—maybe, we hope, even tomorrow.