Criterion Fridays – Make Way For Tomorrow

Make Way For Tomorrow (1937, dir. Leo McCarey)
Starring Victor Moore, Beulah Bondi

The economy is bad. Unemployment. The Housing Market. Small Businesses. Crashing every day. During The Great Depression, cinema reflected this moment in history where the common man was struggling to make ends meet. People were losing their homes, ending up jobless and on the streets, and Hollywood wasn’t afraid to put that up on the screen.There were many escapist pictures in the theaters during the Great Depression, particularly musicals, but even those had elements of the financial struggles people were under going. Not so now. Particularly during the summer, we have mindless film after mindless film, featuring people so distant and out of touch with our own reality that, for myself, I become disengaged. What I am shocked to see is reality reflected on the screen.

Barkley and Lucy have been married for fifty years when the bank notifies them that their home for all this time is being taken away. Barkley hasn’t worked in four years and he and Lucy don’t have enough money for a new place right away. They contact their four adult children and explain the situation. Behind the couple’s back, the children fight about who will take them, with it being decided that Lucy will go to stay with George, the eldest son, and Barkley will go to Cora, the eldest daughter. Lucy soon finds George’s wife and teenaged daughter don’t care for her presence in the home. Hundreds of miles away, Barkley has come down with a cold and is bedridden. Cora is infuriated she has to deal with him, but puts on the facade of a caring daughter when the doctor comes calling.

Make Way For Tomorrow introduces an idea that would still be controversial today in many circles: Do not live your life as a parent completely when you have children, you must have a definition outside of that. The children in the film are not monsters; stepping back when can see things from their point of view. But we also sympathize greatly with Barkley and Lucy, they truly gave every thing they had to their children and it may have not been the smartest move. Once their children became adults they vanished from their parents’ lives and only now have becoming aware of the financial situation back home. The relationship between Barkley and Lucy is deeply loving, its rare that I see a couple on screen when I completely buy their relationship. The paths the film leads them down are not happy ones, like the title suggests, it becomes about accepting change in your life.

Orson Welles said of this film that “it would make a stone cry”. He was exactly right. The love between these people is so pure and beautiful. The final sequence of the film involves them taking an unexpected car ride to the hotel where they honeymooned fifty years earlier. The coat check girl, the hotel manager, every one treats them in the way we wish their children did. The drinks are on the house, the band conductor plays an old tune when Barkley and Lucy hit the dance floor. Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi master these characters with a sly humor that undercuts a lot of the sadness that pervades the film. It doesn’t end on a hopeful note, but a realistic one, an admonition that life changes in ways don’t want. We are powerless to fight it, so instead we should embrace the people around us.

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