A common misperception among the wistfully nostalgic is that movies used to be so much better in the olden days, when they were “clean” and “happy.” Actually, some of the best pictures to come out of old Hollywood were grim, shameless tearjerkers, ending with lovers separated, heroes dead, and the future dreadfully uncertain. Leo McCarey’s 1937 melodrama Make Way For Tomorrow has a reputation as one of the saddest movies ever made, yet it’s also a marvel of Hollywood classicism, sweeping the audience swiftly and smoothly toward a devastating finish. Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi play an aged couple who lose their house in the Depression and are forced to move in with their grown children. Because of space, money, and lifestyle issues, Moore and Bondi are split up, with him moving out to the country, where he promptly takes ill, and her to the city, where she meddles in the relationship between her granddaughter and her daughter-in-law. In the movie’s final third, Moore and Bondi spend one last day together in New York, reminiscing about old times and pretending they still matter.
McCarey overstresses the characters’ infirmity and self-pity at times, but for the most part, Make Way For Tomorrow avoids painting too broadly. Moore and Bondi’s family are short-sighted and self-centered, but not uncommonly so. And anyway, as McCarey makes clear, the old folks are no picnic either. In one of the movie’s many well-observed sequences, Bondi makes a nuisance of herself at her daughter-in-law’s bridge class, not getting that this is a business engagement, not a social one. She interrupts play with her squeaky rocking chair, pesters players with long anecdotes, and offers unsolicited advice about the catering. (“How fancy could a sandwich be?… It’s cheaper to do them at home.”) McCarey and screenwriter Viña Delmar—working very loosely from a play, which was itself based on a novel—emphasize that while the kids are insensitive, Moore and Bondi themselves are often completely unaware of how they come off to this rising generation.
So Make Way For Tomorrow becomes a movie about awkward conversations and small gestures, simultaneously true to life and telegraphed in the best showbiz tradition. The film gets across Bondi’s social tone-deafness with precisely written and delivered dialogue, like when she rambles about when her sister “was visiting that girl who was married to that fella who was related to those people who had a daughter in the South.” And McCarey tells a lot of the story with sly visual cues too, as when he shows Moore’s kids lugging around a big portrait of him that they can’t find a suitable place to hang. As Make Way For Tomorrow works through its bittersweet third act, every memory and casual kindness gets amplified, until the movie becomes almost unbearably poignant. The sentiment reaches its apex when Moore and Bondi share one last dance in the hotel where they once honeymooned. As they leave the floor, the bandleader mouths a goodbye to them, plainly understanding that “tomorrow” for these two is waiting right outside the door, and it won’t be kind.
Key features: Interviews with Peter Bogdanovich and Gary Giddins, who break down the film’s history and power.