With Valentine's Day 2010 still visible in the rearview mirror, it's only appropriate that I have the opportunity to write about the most convincing love story ever put on screen.
Director Leo McCarey's record of commercial and critical success straddled the silent and sound eras. He was responsible for the teaming of Laurel and Hardy, directed films with Charlie Chase and helmed the "Duck Soup" (1933), the greatest Marx Brothers' film. He churned out multiple box office hits, most notably the juggernauts "The Awful Truth" (1937, the film credited with turning Cary Grant into Cary Grant) and the Bing Crosby vehicle "Going My Way" (1944).
McCarey was (accurately) best known for his comedies, but in the middle of this remarkable run he produced one of the saddest love stories of all time, and not the Hallmark-moron-never-sorry sad of "Love Story" (1970.) Based on a novel by Josephine Lawrence, "Make Way for Tomorrow" (1937) depicts the ravages of the Great Depression on an intimate level. Barkley and Lucy Cooper (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi) have been married for fifty years but now they are to be evicted from the family home. The children are all terribly concerned (well, not all of them) but nobody has the room to take them both so, for the first time since they were married, they are to be split up.
Lucy quickly becomes the rusty fifth wheel in her new home with son George (Thomas Mitchell) and his family in New York City. Lacking the companionship that Bark's steady presence provided, she tries in vain to fill the void with her sympathetic but permanently busy daughter-in law Anita (Fay Bainter) and a teenaged granddaughter who doesn't need an old biddy around to cramp her go-go style. McCarey and screenwriter Viña Delmar could settle for making Lucy a typical puppy-eyed sad sack who exists just to pluck a few heart-strings before she conveniently croaks but we soon learn that Lucy possesses a depth and a dignity rarely granted to senior citizens in film.
At a bridge class taught at home by Anita, Lucy makes a spectacle of herself, chatting up the hoity-toity players who tolerate her presence with condescending politeness. Then she gets a phone call from Bark. Speaking loud enough to be heard by the entire room, she sounds for all the world like she's never used one of these speaking machines before: "Hullo? Is that you, Bark? This is me, Lucy." The players chuckle behind her back. But then, in one of the greatest one-sided phone conversations ever recorded, Lucy reveals the profound love she feels for this man whose absence is only made keener by the long distance call. She fusses about the cold and tells him to wear a coat. She answers his unheard comments with an easy, gentle "I know." By the time she gets to the line: "We'll soon be together for always," the card players' laughter collapses into shame, as does the viewers' if they have been playing along as well. It's just the first of many times your heart will break.
Bark doesn't fit in any better with his daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon) but he finds a sympathetic ear in the Jewish shop keeper Max, played brilliantly by stage veteran Maurice Moscovitch. Once again Lucy's bluntly profound words unearth volumes of emotion, this time in the form of a letter that Bark, who has broken his glasses once again, asks Max to read to him. Max can barely finish. In a special touch that shows just how fully realized McCarey's characters are, the director stays with Max after Bark departs the scene. His own heart fractured just a bit by the letter, Max calls for his wife. Irritated at being distracted from her chores, she asks why. His answer: "I just wanted to look at you."
The film delivers its melodramatic haymaker in the tour-de-force final act. Bark is about to be shipped off to California for "health reasons" and they are granted one last day together in the city before Bark catches his train west. In "Eyes Wide Shut," New York was transformed into a dream location that reflected the paranoia of Tom Cruise's repressed doctor. Here it turns equally fanciful, becoming the expression of their last shared fantasy. They are treated with exquisite kindness by one stranger after another as they're whisked through the sunny streets of this magical kingdom in a shiny chariot (in this case, a new car driven by a hopeful salesman) to the upscale hotel where they spent their honeymoon which, incidentally, was the last time they took a trip anywhere. The hotel manager, the hatcheck girl, and even a bandleader go to great lengths to ensure that they enjoy themselves. The self-described "old-fashioned" lovers drop their guard, getting a little tipsy and even a bit frisky. They lean in to kiss each other but Lucy glances directly at the camera to acknowledge that she understands the audience doesn't really want to see an old couple lock lips. That's reserved for Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, damn them both.
All of this paves the way for the unforgettable final scene which I will not describe save to echo Orson Welles' famous description of the film: "It would make a stone cry." It makes the end of "Stella Dallas" seem Rocky-inspirational.
McCarey let his actors improvise on set, seldom letting them know beforehand what they were set to do each day and his faith in his performers pays off as richly as his faith in his characters. Bondi (who was only 48 at the time) and Moore are both magnificent as are most of the supporting players including the aforementioned Mr. Moscovitch. Fay Bainter and Thomas Mitchell, who would both win Oscars in the next few years, are also superlative.
"Make Way for Tomorrow" was a rare commercial flop for McCarey (A love story with old people? Yuck!) but while it isn't as well known today as films like "Going My Way" or "The Awful Truth," it wouldn't be accurate to describe it as forgotten. Welles was only one of several filmmakers to sing its praises, and the French New Wave critics helped to revive interest in it in the 60s. Reportedly, McCarey considered it the best of his films and it's tough to argue.
If the movie strikes a false note, I didn't hear it. And yes, I cried.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Like many Criterion full-screen releases, the image is window-boxed, meaning some viewers will see a thin black frame around the image. I love the grain in this transfer – it feels very "filmic." I know that's a nonsense term, but I wax nostalgic in the digital era. This brought me back to the days of seeing freshly struck prints in repertory theaters. There are some signs of damage to the source print but nothing significant for a movie that is now as old as its lead characters. The contrast isn't razor sharp but I'm not complaining.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. It's a little tinny at times but the dialogue is crystal clear. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
There are only two extras offered.
The first is an interview with Peter Bogdanovich (2009, 20 min.) in which he discusses McCarey's career and namedrops at his usual fast and furious pace.
The disc also includes an interview with critic Gary Giddins (2009, 20 min.) who provides a more in-depth analysis of the film. I like this one a lot.
The insert booklet is one of Criterion's best. Tag Gallagher provides a print-equivalent of one of his excellent visual essays that have been featured on Criterion releases before ("The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, for example.) and it is excellent. A short appreciation by director Bertrand Tavernier reflects the enthusiasm the Cahiers critics had for "Make Way." Finally, the booklet includes an incisive essay by the recently deceased critic Robin Wood, an excerpt from his 1998 essay "Leo McCarey and ‘Family Values.'"
The booklet makes up somewhat for the lack of features but for a film this magnificent and somewhat overlooked, it would have been nice to get a little more. But maybe that's just getting greedy.
I'll repeat Orson Welles' famous assessment of the film: "It would make a stone cry." If the film sounds a little bit like "Tokyo Story" you are mistaken. It's a lot like "Tokyo Story" and it served as the inspiration for Ozu's film. Both films can rightly be considered the best ever made about elderly couples. I can't think of another film which portrayed love so convincingly. Bark and Lucy, I'll never forget you.
The absence of "Make Way for Tomorrow" in Region 1 has been a glaring oversight. Criterion's release has corrected that and it's going to appear on many "Best of" lists at the end of the year.