Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow is one of the truly great underrated masterpieces from the classic era of American cinema. While it hasn’t gained much notoriety outside of more serious film lover circles, it hasn’t lost its impact in the slightest after more than 75 years since its premiere, and it’s even had an observable influence on the careers of certain industry heavyweights. Orson Welles himself proclaimed that it could make a stone cry, and it was also the inspiration for Yasujiro Ozu’s much better known post-WW2 era domestic drama Tokyo Story. Even McCarey himself famously said upon winning a Best Director Oscar for his romantic comedy The Awful Truth, released in the same year: “Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong film.” Funny line, but even more incredible than all these influences and charming asides surrounding the film are the merits of the actual film itself.
The story concerns an elderly couple, Lucy and Bark, who are forced to separate when they lose their house and none of their five children are able (nor willing) to take both parents. T’was a blue Christmas indeed. Right from the start, Make Way for Tomorrow is quietly observant about the inherent awkwardness of the situation. None of the children are cruel to their elders, and they all speak with their parents kindly, but each have their own set of limits. However, none of them are portrayed as unnecessarily cruel or villainous either. It’s just that the situation is pushing everyone’s buttons, and all those involved are simply too polite to be the first one to speak out.
Take, for instance, a scene which occurs fairly early on in the film. Lucy has just come back from spending an evening with her niece at the movie theater and is unknowingly obnoxious towards her daughter-in-law’s bridge class. She then receives a long distance phone call from Bark, and loudly disrupts the bridge class even further to talk with her love for the first time in weeks. The scene starts out slightly comical but becomes sad pretty soon, and by the time the phone call is over, even becomes quite heartbreaking. McCarey was a master of emotional triggering, capable of tugging on the heartstrings with subtle tone shifts that never feel cheap or manipulative. Future directors like Steven Spielberg would follow by his example, but nobody has been able to truly replicate this with such perfection since.
The film also contains one of the greatest third acts in film history. It has Lucy and Bark spending their last afternoon alone together, walking the streets of New York City, wandering from place to place, which culminates in an emotionally devastating goodbye at a train station, as the couple parts ways, possibly forever – and it’s just as heartbreaking as it sounds. Nothing much happens in the way of an actual plot, as the section is entirely reliant on the strong connection felt between the lead couple. Leo McCarey was able to flawlessly depict the underlying sadness of their separation, while successfully managing to maintain a rather languid, easy going tonality throughout, unless a scene called for some heavier emphasis.
The late and great film critic Roger Ebert once wrote that entertainment is about the way things should be, and that art is about the way they are. The most powerful films often simply depict the events without telegraphing the audience how to feel about what they’re seeing. It’s sometimes hard to believe that a film this emotionally raw and unrelenting was released by the Hollywood studio system in 1937. It’s one of the great lost treasures of a filmmaking generation long since past, and it should be recognized as such.