Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow is a Depression-era tragedy that suggests that the collapse of the market took humanity with it. Unassailably good-hearted couple Barkley (Victor Moore) and Lucy (Beulah Bondi) discover this quickly when they lose their home to foreclosure and must inform their adult children that they need help until things stabilize. Despite the lack of time to prepare, the children deduce immediately the odds of their parents ever again being able to live independently and begin to shuttle responsibility for their care back and forth between each other in a shell game. At last, they propose a callous solution to minimize the disruption in their own lives, opting to separate their parents so the kids only have to deal with one inconvenience at a time.
Clearly melodramatic in the constant escalation of miseries heaped upon the couple by their own ungrateful children, the film nonetheless wrings the most amount of misery from how calmly the two leads receive each slight. Moore and Bondi don’t play Barkley and Lucy as simpletons, despite their good-natured acquiescence, but the characters also never mount a defense against their family’s obvious attempts to dispose of them. Their resigned acceptance can be felt even when they aren’t on screen, as when the halting, euphemistic cadences of the letter Lucy sends Barkley contains allusions to the suspicious praise that her daughter-in-law, Anita (Fay Bainter), lavishes on an elderly home that Lucy finds abhorrent and cold. Tiny sighs and downcast looks give away that the parents know what’s happening to them, but those mild, easily missed displays of hurt prevent any catharsis, further magnifying the pain of watching the kind protagonists suffer.
That McCarey, one of the great screwball directors, should direct such a glacial, naturalistic drama may be a surprise, but the director sprinkles a few moments of comedy throughout. Bondi in particular laces Lucy’s awkward sociality with wry observation. Lucy interrupts Anita’s bridge class by sitting in a creaky rocking chair and giving away the players’ hands. Her bumbling earnestness is screwball in slow motion, though the payoff for the extended sequence is an inverted punchline. Answering a phone call from Barkley in the parlor where everyone plays, she amusingly shouts into the receiver and brings the games to a halt. But the socialites’ irritation turns to embarrassment as she ignores them to speak gently and lovingly to the husband taken from her for no good reason. For the first time, her son and daughter-in-law realize the toll their flippant, unkind treatment is having on their relative, and as their friends look on with sympathy, they finally question the impact of their schemes.
The final act, in which Barkley and Lucy reject, if but for one afternoon, the calculations of their children and enjoy each other’s company for one last time, is an elegiac blend of mirth and sorrow. Barkley adjusts his clothing with youthful self-consciousness, treating this more like his first date with Lucy than his last, but he also makes a weak excuse to duck into a clothing shop with a “man wanted” sign out front in a last-ditch attempt to land some income and avert the coming disaster. As if the world can no longer bear to watch them deal with their children’s treatment, Lucy and Barkley find themselves in the company of strangers who are delighted by the couple’s charm and treat them with respect and generosity. This glimpse of happiness proves short-lived, however, and the film ends as it must, with the pair bidding each other farewell, victims of an economic and moral catastrophe so big their decency cannot hope to push back against it. The nation’s economic fortunes would reverse, of course, but not in time to save these two, and knowledge of that only makes this wrenching movie even sadder.
An upgrade of Criterion’s previous standard-definition transfer, the Blu-ray is no revelation, but it nonetheless looks great. Leo McCarey’s unfussy direction doesn’t preclude a clear eye for clean composition and natural detail, and you can read every fluctuation of agony and hope in the actors’ faces thanks to consistent textures. Some lingering print damage and in-camera instances of uneven contrast are likely here to stay, barring an unnecessary restoration, but the film still looks even better than Criterion’s excellent DVD. The mono track is clear, scrubbed of the hiss built into the first generation of talkies, a vital achievement given how much of the film’s power comes from its silences.
Peter Bogdanovich and Gary Giddins both contribute video interviews in which they discuss the film and Leo McCarey. Bogdanovich naturally takes a macro approach to the director’s career, while Giddins goes a bit more in-depth on the film itself. Both men are entertaining speakers, and both impart information while also letting the film’s emotional rawness speak for itself. A booklet is also included, featuring essays by the great critics Tag Gallagher and Robin Wood, as well as one by director Bertrand Tavernier.
The most devastating of American pictures is a simple film masking great complexity, and Criterion’s straightforward package is a testament to its self-evident quality.