Make Way for Tomorrow (1937): Why it’s Forgotten & Why it Matters

Having summoned four of their grown children, Barkley and Lucy Cooper break some difficult news: the elderly couple have been hit hard by the Depression, and their house will soon be lost to foreclosure.  The children express surprise and concern in many words, and even chastise their parents sternly for not speaking up sooner. However, when the question of where their parents are to stay arises, all have characteristically little to say. It is eventually decided that Lucy will stay with their eldest son George in New York, and Bark with their eldest daughter Cora. Just for the moment, of course – their parents will soon be reunited. Thus, rather ominously, begins Make Way for Tomorrow.

Among filmmakers, praise has been lavish for Make Way for Tomorrow. Orson Welles insisted that the movie could “make a stone cry”. Leo McCarey, its director, named it the finest picture he had ever made. From John Ford to Jean Renoir to Kogo Noda, writers and directors the world over spoke admiringly of the film’s frank depiction of ageing and hardship. Yet on its release, Make Way for Tomorrow flopped at the box office. Today, it lies largely forgotten on the banks of cinematic history A simple question remains: why? The last name in that heady list of visionaries may well be the key. Not twenty years after Make Way for Tomorrow, Noda approached long-time collaborator Yasujirō Ozu with a plot loosely inspired by the American film. 103 days and 43 bottles of sake later, Tokyo Story was born.

Perhaps the question of why McCarey’s favourite film has been so easily forgotten boils down to the rather pitiable truth: Make Way for Tomorrow was ironically swept aside by a new film that addressed the same themes and fulfilled the same emotional needs – and did it better. What Make Way for Tomorrow speaks of Tokyo Story seems to say with fewer words and with greater eloquence. The scene of Cora’s dealings with the doctor and a kind old shopkeeper demonstrate the somewhat contrived conflicts of Make Way for Tomorrow well. Cora feels the need to drag her poor sick father from the couch and shove him into a bed when the doctor calls  (highlighting her hypocrisy). But when Barkley’s new friend pays a visit and brings him some soup, Cora pitches an absolute fit, screeching that she can take care of her father herself (displaying such great indiscretion as to be not only uncharacteristic but unbelievable). On a higher plane, it is much of the same: Make Way for Tomorrow sees children who separate their parents with little thought, and as far as is apparently within their power at that. The result is quintessentially melodramatic and far removed from the much more subtle, yet no less heartbreaking, Tokyo Story.

Remember also that Make Way for Tomorrow was not at all well-received in 1937. (I know I seem just to be twisting the knife at this point, but do bear with – I’m getting there.) The film was destined to make way not only for the likes of Tokyo Story, but even its contemporaries – films such as John Ford’s realist drama The Grapes of Wrath (although we naturally have Mr Steinbeck to thank for this one too). In other words, Make Way for Tomorrow was an old-fashioned picture about old fashioned people – even in its own time.

Ultimately though, I believe Make Way for Tomorrow is more valuable than my slightly meta considerations may give it credit for. Firstly, as a historical artefact of sorts: while it is not the Depression as it was exactly, Make Way for Tomorrow gives us something equally precious: a glimpse into the psyche of those that lived through the Depression. Seen from this perspective, it is inevitable that the film paints a picture of such unrelenting despair. Moreover, this may also be the key to why the film failed so spectacularly at the box office: no one likes seeing their unrelenting reality realised in front of them. We want to be provided with the screwy hilarity of Awful Truth and Bringing Up Baby – tales playing out in silver-screen palaces where your only worry is your pet leopard. Make Way For Tomorrow, as Errol Morris noted, provides only the “reassurance that everything will definitely end badly”.

We have now had a gander through Make Way for Tomorrow’s critical appraisals, made comparisons with other films – even touched upon its historical context. What, you may be wondering though, of the film itself? Well, it comes up short against the emotional and aesthetic power of Tokyo Story. Its art is conspicuous when contrasted with The Grapes of Wrath. Yet good cinema – indeed, any aesthetic experience, defies these petty differentiations. The power of Make Way for Tomorrow is nowhere more apparent than in its final act – a tender and sweetly fantastic act in which the film truly comes into its own.

Barkley and Lucy spend one last afternoon together in New York – the city where they honeymooned some fifty years ago. Instead of joining their children for dinner, they decide to take a rebellious whirl in a fancy car, curtesy of a good-natured salesman. (Incidentally, there was a part of me that was hoping against hope for a getaway à la Thelma & Louise, but this was not to be).  They return to the hotel where they stayed on their last visit, only to discover that it has changed beyond recognition. They make their way to a beautiful dance floor, only to find they literally cannot keep up with the rowdy rhythms of the times. The image is a chilling inversion of the glittering facades which grace so many 1930s films, representing not an escape but their reality: Barkley and Lucy have become unwelcome strangers in a place which had once meant the world to them. As they part at the train station, they realise they will never see each other again – but this is left unsaid.

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