Now that Sátántangó has been released on DVD (in the UK), and Histoire(s) du cinéma has once again been delayed by Gaumont (in France), the next holy grail for the widest swathe of home viewing cinephiles might be Leo McCarey’s sublime and shattering Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), the last film screened in the UCLA film archive’s “Curated by… Guy Maddin” series. If anyone knows why Paramount has yet to release this film in any video format anywhere in the world, I’d love to hear the justification, because the film has astonished commentators and filmmakers alike for decades. Two examples: Gilbert Adair called it “the most beautiful, tender, funny, heartbreaking of movies on old age,” and screenwriter Kogo Noda used it as the blueprint for Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953).
Hollywood melodramas do not often compare to timeless masterpieces of world cinema, but Make Way for Tomorrow does, largely through McCarey’s sophisticated blend of tragic pathos, psychological insight, and rich, knowing humor. An elderly Depression-strapped couple, still deeply in love, must sell their home and live with their partially accommodating, but ultimately insensitive adult children; initially, Barkley and Lucy must live in separate cities, but the move only precipitates an unavoidable and final farewell–their future lies on opposite coasts. Paramount hated the ending and asked McCarey to change it; when he refused he was shown the door, prompting him to make The Awful Truth the same year at Columbia, which earned him an Oscar for Best Director. Receiving the award, he famously quipped, “You gave it to me for the wrong movie.”
In his informative essay “‘Recasting’ of Make Way for Tomorrow” in the David Desser collection, Ozu’s Tokyo Story, Arthur Nolletti, Jr. points out that McCarey utilizes the Depression like Noda and Ozu utilize the postwar Japanese economic boom: both milieus ultimately favor young professionals, leaving the elderly to fend for themselves. “But what undermined the family even more,” Nolletti writes, “was the philosophy accompanying industrialization and modern capitalism, the ‘idea of success, individualism, and what might be called ‘the wish to be free.” It is this philosophy that is embraced by the middle-aged children in both films.” Though McCarey was far from anti-capitalist (he tragically named names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities), his Catholic social concern (seen in films like Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s) no doubt sensitized him to the need for economic reforms like the Social Security Act of 1935.
Both films make attempts to explain–but not excuse–the grown children’s insensitive behavior. McCarey orchestrates a variety of relationships among his characters that offers ongoing amusement and tension. Lucy is indeed a misfit, failing to recognize the social nuances of her daughter-in-law’s bridge parties, monopolizing the visits of her granddaughter Rhoda’s suitors, and awkwardly spending or saving money where it’s not needed. And though Barkley seems more streetwise, sharing Lucy’s seemingly naive letters with an immigrant shop owner he befriends, he becomes surprisingly crotchety with a young doctor. Lucy may initially seem more simplistic in her understanding, but McCarey includes a final act that demonstrates the depth of her quiet perceptions.
Characters are constantly covering for others, implying politely, or discreetly signaling private understandings; there is much that happens beneath the surface of this ostensible melodrama. One gets the sense that these are real characters with real thoughts and feelings coursing through them. There’s a delicacy to the relationships that fosters genuine emotional connections with them. When Lucy is sent out of the house to chaperon Rhoda to the movies, Rhoda sneaks out the back of the theater for a secret date and returns after the film. “It was a good show, wasn’t it?” Rhoda bluffs. “I liked the boy very much.” Lucy doesn’t miss a beat: “Why, I don’t know, I only caught a swift glimpse of him as you got out of his car.” Yet she promises not to tell her mother if Rhoda promises not to do it again.
(Incidentally, McCarey humorously pokes fun of genre conventions–and happy endings–by an usher’s description of the movie showing in the theater: “It’s the old gag about the guy who takes the blame for a job his pal done; the pal’s a rat and lets the nice guy go to the pen. But when he’s dying and the rat confesses, and the boy and girl end up…” “Look, is it sad in any place?” Rhoda asks impatiently. “Some of them cry when his dog dies,” the usher offers. McCarey has indeed set his sights higher; this tragedy is not predicated on formula or pat sentimentality.)
What keeps McCarey and Ozu’s films from becoming cynical evocations of humanity, however, is their incorporation of significant acts of kindness from strangers or distant relatives. At the end of their rope, Lucy and Barkley spend a day in New York City reliving their youth, and various people–perhaps somewhat shocked to discover such simple people in the hustle and bustle of the city–shift from their roles as wheelers and dealers (a car salesman, a hotel owner, a band conductor) and graciously accommodate them, sensing that the occasion is somehow special. In MoMA’s The Hidden God book, Dave Kehr suggests “in their last day together, they have tasted a kind of paradise, a hint of the ‘eternal return’ that finds youth in old age and life in death.” Make Way for Tomorrow is an uncommonly wise and deeply felt film, where each and every scene seems perfectly, exactly rendered by a filmmaker who cares about what he’s saying.