Make Way For Tomorrow (1937)
If there’s a sadder movie than director Leo McCarey’s Make Way For Tomorrow, I’m not sure I could handle seeing it. I watched it for the first time this weekend and it wrecked me. I think what makes it so powerful is how truthfully and unsentimentally written, acted and directed it is. The story is told in a matter-of-fact, non-manipulative way, which makes it that much more moving.
The movie centers around the Coopers, an elderly couple in their 70s, beautifully and sensitively played by Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi. When Mr. Cooper loses his job, the bank takes their house and leaves them homeless. None of their five children has the room or the inclination to take both of them in. One son and his wife take in the mother. A daughter and her husband take in the father. After 50 years of marriage, the Coopers are separated for the first time, living 300 miles apart. It’s only supposed to be for a few months, until one of the other children can take both of them in.
The old couple miss each other terribly, and to make matters worse their children aren’t happy to have them in their homes. They aren’t villains and they do make an effort to help and be kind to their parents, but they’re also self-centered. They have their own children, jobs and interests to think about. No one likes to have their life disrupted, after all. You can’t help disliking the children for not being better to their parents, but at the same time it’s all too easy to put yourself in their shoes.
Also, you can’t pretend that Mr. and Mrs. Cooper aren’t sometimes irritating and in the way. Their presence upsets the households they move into. I think that’s a lot of what makes the movie so painful to see – we’ve all had moments where we resented the intrusion of others on our time and space, even when those others are family members we love. The complicated and conflicted feelings we see in the Coopers’ children is part of what makes the movie so sadly realistic.
The daughter who had initially planned to take in both parents backs out. The son housing the mother (Thomas Mitchell in a wonderful performance) decides to put her in a home for elderly women. The daughter taking care of the father decides to send him to her sister who lives in California – supposedly for his health, but really to get him out of her hair.
The elderly Coopers get to spend one day together before they go their separate ways. During that last day they walk around New York City, reminiscing and trying not to look at their watches. They visit the hotel where they spent their honeymoon, giving us a glimpse at the sweet young couple they must have been 50 years before. They’ve only changed on the outside – inside they’re still the same boy and girl who fell in love all those years before. They’re treated very kindly by the hotel staff, who look on them with affection and admiration. They listen to their stories, provide them with free drinks and a lovely dinner, and play waltzes so they can dance in the ballroom, among all the young couples.
Of course, it’s easy to be kind for one day. It’s much harder to be kind and self-sacrificing for years, which is what the Coopers’ children aren’t willing to do. In the end they realize how terrible and selfish they are for separating their parents for their own convenience, but none of them makes a move to change their parents’ circumstances.
As the elderly Coopers wander around the city, a sign in a bank window seems to taunt them – “Save While You Are Young.” Mr. Cooper says he’s a failure, because even though he worked hard they have lost their home. Mrs. Cooper disagrees and says she’s the one who did something wrong, although she tried her best to be a good wife and mother. “You don’t sow wheat and reap ashes,” she says, as my heart breaks into a million pieces. The final scene, in which they say goodbye to each other knowing they probably won’t meet again, is wrenchingly sad. As Orson Welles said of this movie, “it would make a stone cry.”
Make Way For Tomorrow is unflinching about how hard it is to grow old, and about how little regard the younger generation often has for the older one that is in its way. The movie seems almost prophetic, since family ties have frayed even further since the 1930s, and regard for age and wisdom is even lower in this youth-obsessed time than it was back then.
Even more now than in the Depression era the movie depicts, family members are scattered to the four winds and people are busy doing their own thing. With a huge generation of Baby Boomer parents approaching old age in this economically difficult Great Recession era, Make Way For Tomorrow is as important and moving a film now as it was almost 75 years ago.