If one believes that true cinema artistry is measured primarily by recognition and reward, then Leo McCarey more than earned his place in the directorial pantheon with the popular Cary Grant/Irene Dunne divorce comedy The Awful Truth. Yet when accepting his Best Director Oscar for the film, McCarey offered a mild rebuke to the majority opinion: “Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture.” McCarey was speaking of Make Way for Tomorrow, the film he directed prior to The Awful Truth, a picture that failed to find an audience because of its relentlessly upsetting portrayal of Bark Cooper (Victor Moore) and his wife Lucy (Beulah Bondi), an elderly couple facing the frustrating challenges of age. McCarey opens Make Way for Tomorrow in the literal heavens, the sun breaking through the clouds to choral accompaniment. “Honor thy mother and father!” screams one of those grandiose ‘30s title cards, a sweeping visual assertion—nearly operatic—that posits the film as a bibilical parable. It also threatens an inevitable narrative stumble into cinematic sadomasochism, yet McCarey never trades in dishonest Pavlovian manipulation. Orson Welles reportedly said of the film, “It would make a stone cry,” and, indeed, the tears that come are more than earned.
Make Way for Tomorrow‘s opening visual aria leaves one unprepared for the subtle, insightful observation to follow. Scenes such as a melancholy Christmas get-together—where Bark and Lucy inform their grown children of their financial woes—show McCarey’s intimate understanding of family dynamics. The character personalities in this sequence are familiar, bordering on stereotype and cliché, but note that McCarey rarely isolates a single actor in close-up. Instead, through a series of complementary two- and four-shots, children and parents react to the news in slightly different ways, enacting a kind of symphonic musical distress that is instantly recognizable though entirely unique. Leo Tolstoy wrote that “All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” a statement that accounts for the simultaneous familiarity and alien-ness of the Cooper family and their dire situation.
After Bark and Lucy are separated—each living with different children, hundreds of miles apart—McCarey profoundly illustrates the characters’ anxieties. Lucy lives in a middle-class city apartment with her son, his wife, and their daughter, and she is almost always a nuisance. In a particularly wrenching scene, the squeak of Lucy’s rocking chair interrupts her daughter-in-law’s bridge game. The glances thrown at Lucy by the woman and her friends are complicated mixtures of contempt, pity, and fear; they are both hateful and sympathetic to Lucy’s situation while terrified at the reflection she provides of their own futures. The tension comes to a head a moment later when Lucy receives a phone call from Bark. McCarey focuses his camera almost entirely on Lucy as she expresses the solemn hope of seeing her husband again. The bridge players are silent, out-of-focus shadows in the background, and yet there’s a palpable sense of a pained collective consciousness exhaling its many miseries, a draining emotional release expertly captured on film by McCarey and his actors.
Bark’s troubles are no less exhaustive. Often ill, and living in a low-rent country home with his daughter and her husband, Bark’s sole pleasure comes from an aged local store owner, both of them commiserating over lost pasts and fleeting presents. McCarey lingers over their conversations, attuning our ears to the unique rhythms and cadences: an impressive feat in the fledgling years of the sound film. In McCarey’s view, the elderly are slipping away into a forgotten abyss, so words are a necessary outlet, a way of constantly reestablishing one’s identity against both a cruel society and nature’s predestined course. Outside an employment office a young man snidely asks of Bark, “You were a bookkeeper?” To which Bark responds, “I am a bookkeeper!” His forceful declaration might as well be a defiant rebuke to Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates, a vigorous pronouncement of mortal war on the heavens themselves.
But the film does not allow for mortal victory. As Make Way for Tomorrow proceeds, a heavy sense of the inevitable descends, culminating in Bark and Lucy’s permanent separation to rest homes on opposite coasts. Before they depart, the couple treat themselves to a bittersweet night on the town, and it is here that McCarey’s masterful mise en scène recalls the spare profundity of a Japanese landscape print—no surprise that the film is the ostensible inspiration for Yasujirô Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Having moved his camera through numerous class settings, McCarey climaxes Make Way for Tomorrow at a ritzy upper-class hotel, a locale perhaps frequented by the thieving devil-may-care protagonists of Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise. But this hotel is as harsh and foreboding as it is beautiful (the weight of the Great Depression crouches at its doors), and it finally seems a hollowed out purgatory where clueless souls wile away the hours of their lives. Bark and Lucy bring a minuscule measure of awareness to this earthbound Chamber of Guf: the hotel owner listens to their stories with friendly bemusement, a bandleader plays a slow waltz to accommodate their “old folks” tempo, giving them a condescendingly complicit nod. Yet nothing outshines the film’s own awful truth, for as the clock strikes nine and Bark and Lucy depart (keeping destiny’s cruel appointment) the hotel patrons’ ignorant dance continues. Age and wisdom exit the stage, leaving youthful oblivion.