After reading several reviews of director Leo McCarey’s touching drama Make Way for Tomorrow, I knew that I would see a movie about adult children who treat their elderly parents as a burden. The film is certainly a devastating commentary on that topic, and it puts the lie to a commonly held belief that in “the good old days,” children took better care of their elders. What I did not expect was one of the most tender romance sequences I’ve ever seen in film. And the two lovers here are septuagenarians.
When it comes to avoiding the topic of love and sexuality among seniors, Hollywood is a prime offender. Although in recent years several films have been released concerning love among the older set, these stories are usually replete with subplots involving Alzheimers and other ailments. Many times, senior infirmities like flatulence or erectile dysfunction are used as running jokes. If the romantic couple is placed in the protagonist role, you can bet that we will see relatively attractive people, like Meryl Streep, Blythe Danner, or Sam Elliot, locking lips. After all, who wants to see close ups of wrinkles and warts?
In Make Way for Tomorrow, elderly couple Bark and Lucy Cooper are played by two decidedly plain-looking actors, Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi. The story begins with the Coopers calling their grown children together and announcing that Bark is unemployed. In addition, the bank will foreclose on their home within the week. The family members look at each other uncomfortably. They haltingly state that they, too, are having financial problems (remember, this film was made during the Depression) and will be hard up helping the elderly pair. Finally, a temporary agreement is made where Lucy will live with one family, while Bark will move in with another about 300 miles away.
What is of interest to the viewer is that elder care issues portrayed in this 1937 film are still current. Family members miss opportunities to extend respect and compassion to the elderly couple. At the same time, Bark and Lucy sometimes demonstrate behaviors which are exasperating. All of these families are struggling financially, and it becomes evident that there just isn’t enough room for anybody in the two households to exist comfortably.
Bark is eventually pressured into moving to California to live with another relative, and Lucy is talked into going to an old folks home. It is obvious that, with Bark’s departure to the West, husband and wife will probably never see each other again. So the couple decide to have one last night on the town.
This is where the magic begins. As Bark and Lucy walk down the streets of New York, a car sales man, thinking they might be potential buyers, offers them a ride in a luxury automobile. Lucy hesitates. Bark insists, “Let’s do it!” They direct the driver to a hotel where the couple stayed as newlyweds 50 years before. The homely pair slowly walk in amid glittering hotel trappings and glamorous patrons. Clerks and managers alike are enchanted when Bark tells them the newlywed story, and they are seated at the finest table in the establishment. When they get up to dance, the bandleader gives the nod to his orchestra to play an old-fashioned waltz for them.
Bark and Lucy get a little tipsy on cocktails, and soon they begin talking about old times and which day of the week they actually got married. They laugh. Bark apologizes for not being more successful in life. In response, Lucy lovingly recites a poem that she has remembered for the last five decades:
A man and a maid stood hand in hand
Bound by a tiny wedding band.
Before them lay the uncertain years
That promised joy, maybe tears.
“Is she afraid?” thought the man of the maid
“Darling,” he said in a tender voice
“Tell me, do you regret your choice?
We know not where the road may wind,
Or what strange byways we may find.
Are you afraid?” Said the man to the maid.
She raised her eyes and spoke at last.
“My dear,” she said, “The die is cast.
The vows have been spoken. The rice has been thrown
Into the future we will travel alone.
With you,” said the Maid, “I’m not afraid.”
They look at each other. They smile. And suddenly, they lean towards each other, about to engage in a passionate kiss before Lucy’s modesty makes her pull away at the last minute.
I will not relate exactly how the movie ends. Let’s just say that if you’re expecting an upbeat It’s a Wonderful Life conclusion, you won’t get it here.
During the early 1930’s, Leo McCarey directed a series of comedy hits for Paramount Studios, including The Kid From Spain with Eddie Cantor (1932), Duck Soup with the Marx Brothers (1933), Six of a Kind with W.C. Fields, (1934), and Belle of the Nineties with Mae West (1934). Make Way for Tomorrow proved to be a box office dud, probably due to its depressing subject matter, and McCarey was released from Paramount as a result.
The director wised up after this experience. He signed with other studios, and went on to make feel-good movies like the Academy-Award winning Going My Way (1944) and Bells of Saint Mary’s (1945). Although he directed a few more dramatic pictures, some critics feel that Make Way for Tomorrow was his masterpiece in the dramatic genre. So did McCarey. When he won the 1937 Academy Award in the Director’s category for his comedy The Awful Truth, McCarey stated, “You gave it to me for the wrong picture.”
Judge for yourself and watch Make Way for Tomorrow on Turner Classic Movies. You can also purchase it on DVD from amazon.com.
Make Way for Tomorrow, Prod. Leo McCarey, Adolph Zukor. Dir. Leo McCarey. Perf. Victor Moore, Beulah Bondi, Thomas Mitchell, Fay Bainter. Paramount Studios. Film. 1937.
“Leo McCarey.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 28 July 2016. Web. 15 August 2016.
Ebert, Roger. “Make Way for Tomorrow.” rogerebert.com. 11 February 2010. Web. Film Review. 15 August 2016.
“A Man and a Maid,” poem by Anonymous
Image from Bing Public Domain