Filmmakers, like humanity in general, have long been obsessed with death – and why wouldn’t they be? The construct is simultaneously universal and intensely personal, terrifying and exciting, certain and unknown. These bipolarities make for good theater. But for as frequently as The End is dramatized on the silver-screen, the years leading up to it are almost never depicted. This phenomenon is equally easy to explain — nobody wants to think about growing old, because unlike dying, there’s nothing romantic about it. At best, you are content to be a shell of who you once were. At worst, you are a burden on society, unable to care for yourself, rotting away slowly until your demise.
Leo McCarey’s 1937 masterpiece “Make Way for Tomorrow,” which was virtually forgotten by all but the most comprehensive cinephiles until a 2010 Criterion resurrection, is the rare film to tackle the subject head-on. Of the small body of motion pictures that deal with what it means to be elderly, most either attempt to glamorize the stage of life (ah, retirement!) or take pity on the characters (what a poor old lady!). Not this one. It tells, in sobering terms, the story of Bark and Lucy Cooper (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi), an elderly couple who lose their home to the bank in the Depression. They have five children who all have families of their own, but not one is willing to take both of them in. As a result, Bark and Lucy must separate for the first time in decades – each living with a different child “temporarily,” only to be perceived as a nuisance.
No one is treated as an antagonist, except for perhaps the foreclosing bank, in an obvious nod to national sentiment at the time. Even though most of the film is told from Bark and Lucy’s emotional point-of-view, it’s easy to see why their children don’t want to accommodate them. In one scene, Lucy sends all her son’s shirts to the dry-cleaners unasked because they have not been “as fresh or as crisp as they should be,” not considering that he might need to wear one before they are ready. In another sequence, Bark comes down with a cold and refuses to say “99” for the doctor, because he looks too young to be trusted. These are simply the kind of behaviors that result from getting old — they are not Bark and Lucy’s fault, per se, but one can empathize with their children’s annoyance.
For as impressive as the first two acts of “Make Way for Tomorrow” are at depicting the day-to-day life of the elderly, it’s the last act that makes the movie a classic. Bark and Lucy, together again for perhaps the last time–he will be pawned off to a daughter in California, while she will stay in an old folks home–have five hours to kill in New York City. They end up drinking and dancing in the old hotel where they spent their honeymoon. Nothing particularly revelatory is said, but leads Moore and Bondi (who was only 49 during filming, donning impressive makeup) are so good, conveying just the chemistry that two people who spent most of their lives together would share. For as heartbreaking as this stretch is–the characters, like the audience, realize that this could effectively mark the end of their marriage–it still manages to convey a certain sense of pride. Here are two people who have accomplished things together — a relationship, a family, a life.
Thus, “Make Way for Tomorrow” is not so much a tragedy as it is a sorrowful expression of the old adage that all good things must come to an end, in order to do what the title says. The final shots are undeniably devastating, but they are not cruel. This is indicative of the film’s greatest accomplishment: it aces a difficult, rarely touched upon subject by simply observing reality accurately and empathetically. There may not be comfort in the sadness, but there is truth, because it is real.
“Reviews by Request” is a column in which Critic Speak readers are able to force writer Danny Baldwin to review a film of their choice, on the condition that they post a link to Critic Speak on their Facebook wall and/or Twitter feed in return. You can get in on the fun today; just send proof that you’ve linked Critic Speak via Facebook or Twitter and make your request (film must be available to rent on Netflix). This review of “Make Way for Tomorrow” was requested by Paul Clark (@opalfilms).