The One about Leo McCarey’s “Make Way for Tomorrow”

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In the 1930’s, both Leo McCarey and Frank Capra are held to the highest regard.

Legendary American film critic Andrew Sarris wrote of McCarey, “McCarey represents a principle of improvisation in the history of the American film.  Noted less for his rigorous direction than for his relaxed digressions, McCarey has distilled a unique blend of farce and sentimentality in his best efforts.” (The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, Andrew Sarris)

For many classic cinema fans, McCarey was known for his directorial efforts in silent films for Hal Roach’s Little Rascals, Charley Chase’s silent shorts to directing many popular hits for Laurel and Hardy and also the Marx Brothers.

As McCarey is known for classic films such as his Academy Award winning films “The Awful Truth” (1937) and “Going My Way” (1944) in 1937, McCarey received recognition for his film “Make Way for Tomorrow” (1937).

Unfortunately, due to America was still suffering the sting of the Depression, American cinema faced major challenges in attracting people to the box office and despite receiving critical praise, the film was a box office failure.  But since its theatrical release in 1937, the film has been considered one of the greatest American films of all time and a film that would inspire screenwriter Kogo Noda in writing the 1953 film “Tokyo Story” directed by Yasujiro Ozu.

McCarey believed that “Make Way for Tomorrow” was his finest film created and in his Academy Award acceptance speech for Best Director for “The Awful Truth”, McCarey said, “Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture.”

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“Make Way for Tomorrow” is an excellent Leo McCarey film that will always resonate strongly with me.

From the magnificent and heartbreaking performance by Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi, to the well-planned camera shots showing the emotions of the characters and most of all, the pacing of the film and not showing that one person is to blame but it’s a part of life that families need to deal with.

The issue of aging parents have been featured in quite a few films in the past but it was McCarey’s that really struck a chord with the audience and because of the film’s nature, released during a time of the Great Depression, Americans were just not in the mood to deal with a realistic and heavy issue, no matter how critically acclaimed the film was. It’s the type of film that many people just don’t want to deal with until that time comes.

And that was in 1937, flashforward 73-years-later to 2010 and its still a major issue today.

But the film tries to make the viewer sympathetic. Granted, you would expect the children to be a little more understanding and helpful after all their parents did for them, raising them and you want to see that same type of respect from the children to their parents but realistically, not many people in America are like that. We look at George’s family who has to take care of her mother and immediately, we know that things are not going to work out.

When George’s wife Anita tries to teach Bridge to her students who are wearing tuxedos and nice dresses, all Lucy wants is companionship because her husband is not there and no one else in the family is willing to communicate with her. So, she does what is natural. She tries to sit and be quiet and watch them play, but her rocking chair makes too loud of a noise for the students to concentrate and embarrasses Anita. But possibly one of the most interesting and saddest scenes in the film is when Lucy receives a call from her husband and you can feel the sadness in her voice of being away from her husband and really missing him. And just that moment where the students can not play because they are entranced to her conversation with her husband, it was a sad scene of the film.

But what is probably the most difficult scene is to see both Lucy and Victor together, as they visit the city and reminisce of the locations they one shared when they were younger. These scenes are not just fun to watch but it’s also very sad that knowing what will become of the two. During 1937, there was so social security, there was no government programs to assist the elderly and their children have their own lives and none of them have the extra room to take in both parents. Some of the children are willing to take one, others are not willing to do anything anymore knowing that having their parent in their house is a big responsibility.

And what is so sad is that parents have to go through so much in order to raise their children when they are young. But when it’s reverse and the children have to take care of their parents, too many decide its not worth their stress and none are willing to take on that responsibility. And for both Lucy and Victor, they know that. They know it’s an inconvenience and they know that what is going to happen next in their life, they know they may have to take on these challenges alone rather than together.

You can watch “Make Way for Tomorrow”, watch the excellent performance by Bondi and Moore and just see the faces on both Lucy and Victor’s face as they spend which may be their final day together as husband and wife. It’s heartbreaking and it was very noble of director Leo McCarey of going through with this film despite the studio wanting him to change the ending.

I have seen many Leo McCarey films and none have resonated this strongly with me than “Make Way for Tomorrow” and I know people tend to misuse the word “masterpiece” when describing a film but the truth is “Make Way for Tomorrow” is a masterpiece filmed and released during the depression-era. As heartbreaking as Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” or De Sica’s “Umberto D.” was in the ’50s and “Bicycle Thieves” was in the late ’40s, “Make Way for Tomorrow” was an American film during the Golden Era of Hollywood that really captured a storyline of family and aging parents successfully.


 

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Dennis A. Amith