Make Way for Tomorrow Review

Orson Welles supposedly called it the "saddest movie ever made," adding that it "would make a stone cry." Director Leo McCarey is said to have declared that the Academy, upon awarding him an Oscar for 1937's The Awful Truth, chose the wrong picture to honor. It's long been cited as an influence on Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story, one of the few works to perennially appear near the top of many a greatest films list. Jean Renoir was a fan. Through the years, Make Way for Tomorrow has acquired a whispered reverence and a stature built as much from its legendary reputation as first-hand accounts. It's never been an easy movie to track down, and was bypassed entirely by VHS and laserdisc. The DVD format finally caught up to McCarey's other film released in 1937 not very long ago. A French disc in R2 was soon bested by the Criterion Collection's re-introduction of the picture in February 2010. Who would have imagined that just eight months later a Blu-ray edition would beckon? Few who plunked down for the Criterion DVD upon release, I'm sure. Still, the especially protective fans of Make Way for Tomorrow who can play Region B discs will not want to miss this new Masters of Cinema edition.

What McCarey does with his little Paramount picture is remarkable. He takes a large, nearly ignored demographic in the elderly and he brings every one of their struggles into painful focus. Financial troubles, health concerns, relations with their children, the potential for regrets, and so many more of the daily concerns that exist in everyday life are illuminated by McCarey in ways that are entirely unexpected for a Hollywood movie. It's difficult trying to come up with another American feature from the studio era that even comes close to paying such attention to the older generation. That McCarey finds that level of sympathy for his two main characters is one thing, but even more impressive is that he does so without overly sentimentalizing it or resorting to a manufactured emotional swell. The tone remains even, and the ups and downs are natural reactions by the viewer rather than instructions nudged by the film. At no point does it feel like McCarey is goading you into the sadness that Make Way for Tomorrow inevitably instills in its audience.

We have to talk about the sadness. It's almost difficult to recommend a viewing experience that, depending on the person watching, will likely result in such heartfelt and helpless melancholy. But great art is great art. The lead characters of Bark (Victor Moore) and Lucy (Beulah Bondi) Cooper have been married for fifty years. They have five children, none of whom are particularly reliable or thoughtful. Bark having been out of work for four years resulted in the bank taking their house, a predicament revealed to four of their kids in the opening scene. Since no one can take both Bark and Lucy in at the same time, he goes to live with their daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon) and her husband while Lucy is pawned off on son George (Thomas Mitchell) and his wife (Fay Bainter) and daughter (Barbara Read). I don't believe it's explicitly stated, but it seems obvious that the couple have never been apart during the entirety of their marriage and now they're separated by 300 miles. Again, McCarey lets this distance and separation sink in for the viewer rather than hammering home the despondency these two must feel at being apart. The treatment they're given at their respective lodging places doesn't help matters.

Small, though not insignificant, issues arise with caring for both Bark and Lucy. Their children pretty much want nothing more than to get rid of them. McCarey doesn't overpower the story in favor of the parents here. The assumption always seems to be that, regardless of how aggravating their behavior might be, Bark and Lucy deserve much more than being shipped off to, respectively, California and a nursing home in New York. But that doesn't mean that there are any perfect solutions. The children, as awful as their behavior might seem from the outside looking in, clearly have their reasons. I suppose at some point the question becomes where the line is drawn between obligation and convenience. If George and Cora are obligated to look after their parents then they've clearly failed in their roles. If it's more a matter of what's convenient then their blame is lessened somewhat. To be sure, I don't think that McCarey's film is even close to being clear cut about answers of right and wrong and the like. A good portion of its achievement is in presenting these issues concerning the elderly and where they fit in society. The children are hardly portrayed as sympathetic, but I'd also be reluctant to declare them completely wretched either.

Part of the tragedy that we see is in how well Bark and Lucy are treated by those who are under no obligation at all to be nice. A wonderful exchange between Bark and a man who runs a little shop is one of the quiet highlights of the picture. The scenes that particularly resonate outside of the bleak outlook are those that show the couple reunited in New York City after having been apart for several weeks. This third act of the film turns into a fairy tale outing where kindness and generosity (in New York City!) are at every turn. While the children are stewing as they impatiently wait to hear from their parents, total strangers are giving them complimentary car rides, drinks and meals for little reason at all. This is a clear juxtaposition to the behavior shown by their children. It's also probably McCarey's most obvious statement condemning the children's lack of appreciation and overall treatment of those who raised them. Disrespectful behavior that can at times seem generational or an ill of society is shown to be more isolated. If people they don't know can provide Bark and Lucy with transportation, food and entertainment then why is it that their own children fail to find a way to keep the two of them together so late in life?

The truth would seem to be that it's often easier to treat strangers with more respect than those we ostensibly love. Bark and Lucy's children are shown as being enormously selfish. They aren't quite bad people but they do only think of themselves. Some of this is pragmatic, and that's part of why I don't think there's a definitive solution being suggested at any point in the film. This, too, makes for a great deal of sadness because, on some level, I think McCarey allows the viewer to identify with most every character. So much of the picture rings horrifically true. As sympathetic as Bark and Lucy are, they're also on the irresponsible side. They should be provided for, of course, and the idea of separating them makes for the film's ultimate tragedy, but there's an almost philosophical (or, heaven forbid, politically-motivated) line of thinking that tries to restore reality by reminding us that mistakes have been made. I'm glad this isn't emphasized, giving the picture no real villains of which to speak. Bark's age makes it difficult for him to find a job and, without a job, what's he to do. Once again, the problem is age-related. Perhaps McCarey's greatest contribution to all of cinema was reminding everyone that the elderly are far more than parents and nursing home candidates. As we see in such humanistic fashion in Make Way for Tomorrow, they're people who still harbor dreams and desires, and often want nothing more than to have a nice time.

The Disc

The Region B disc from Eureka's Masters of Cinema Series is dual-layered. It's the feature's debut on Blu-ray.

The transfer improves to a surprising extent on Criterion's DVD release. Obviously, this is 1080p high definition but the advancements are quite significant. The image, in approximately the original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, looks remarkably stable. Damage is virtually muted, with just a vertical scratch at one point standing out. Grain looks outstanding. It's present at healthy levels but remarkably well balanced. For a Paramount feature from the '30s, this is just exceptional. I didn't count on the contrast looking this solid either, even if the apparent boosting by Criterion hasn't been repeated. Those skeptical as to whether Make Way for Tomorrow could be improved for Blu-ray need not be concerned. Another fine offering from MoC.

The English DTS-HD 2.0 mono audio is surprising in its loudness. There's no straining of the ears here, for sure. Dialogue is utterly clear. No overly distracting pops or persistent hiss infects the track. This too is a marked improvement over the Criterion offering. Subtitles, white in color, are provided in English for the hearing impaired.

Both of the supplements on the disc are carryovers from the Criterion DVD but still certainly worthy of their inclusion. Peter Bogdanovich discusses the picture as only he can in a 20-minute piece, often invoking Orson Welles. Also, Gary Giddins provides a nice appreciation of McCarey's film and the director that runs about 21 minutes.

A booklet billed as containing a lengthy essay by Geoffrey O'Brien and an excerpt from Josephine Lawrence's source novel Years Are So Long didn't make it my way for review purposes. My scoring of the extras is, thus, slightly debatable but based mostly on the Bogdanovich and Giddins pieces that I quite enjoyed seeing again.

Final Thoughts

An easy contender for disc of the year and a definite upgrade from Criterion's DVD release for those with Region B capabilities.

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