An Old Couple’s Search for Dignity A critic remembers Leo McCarey's classic film about aging.

Contemporary Hollywood slavishly caters to the young, especially the teens and twentysomethings whose immature tastes determine the generally puerile offerings that dominate the multiplexes during most of the year. Only in late fall, in a pandering bid for awards-season prestige, do the studios release a relative handful of more adult-skewing works. This approach is certainly defensible from a marketing perspective: Motion Picture Association of America statistics confirm that, on a per-capita basis, younger cohorts go to movies with significantly greater frequency than older demographic groups, so the dutiful studios are merely serving their youthful masters.

But the nation is rapidly aging, and all those retiring boomers, with leisure time suddenly abundant, would seem a ripe target for exploitation. Might Hollywood be tempted to pay some modest attention to the interests and actual life experiences of seniors? Perhaps. But probably not. Films focused on older protagonists—such as I’ll See You in My Dreams (2015), Grandma (2015), Youth (2015), and Hello, My Name Is Doris (2015)—do appear with increasing regularity in the art-houses, where a predominantly white-haired and wrinkled audience is typically found, but those are niche pictures from specialty distributors, with no realistic expectation of mass appeal. With the exception of the occasional Nancy Meyers romcom—It’s Complicated (2009), Something’s Gotta Give (2003)—the major studios strictly avoid the subject of old age.[i]

That is scarcely a new phenomenon. Even in decades past, when moviegoers were more age-diverse and widely popular films were not so micro-targeted toward juvenile enthusiasms, Hollywood seldom addressed growing old unless it was through a comic lens (Grumpy Old Men (1993), The Sunshine Boys (1975). The topic is simply too depressing: No one—in either real or reel life—wants to confront the difficulties of aging, the imminence of dying.

The point is best proved by Leo McCarey’s glorious Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), the most unbearably moving and resolutely unsparing work that Hollywood has ever made about the elderly. An ardent admirer of McCarey’s film, director Peter Bogdanovich once asked Orson Welles whether he had seen Make Way for Tomorrow, and the legendary filmmaker replied: “Oh my God, that’s the saddest movie ever made. It would make a stone cry. And nobody went!”

Welles does not exaggerate—the film is devastating in its overall emotional impact—though Make Way for Tomorrow is characteristically McCarey in its frequent inclusion of comedy. The film contains plenty of gentle (if often rueful) humor, but it also points toward the approach McCarey would employ in most of his subsequent films, which are just as apt to produce tears as laughs. Love Affair (1939) and its faithful remake, An Affair to Remember (1957), Going My Way (1944), The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), and especially Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942)—a World War II-set romantic comedy that somehow manages to incorporate the Anschluss, the German invasions of Poland and France, and the Nazi persecution of the Jews—never settle into a single register, toggling effortlessly, if sometimes disconcertingly, between comedy and drama.

An ardent admirer of McCarey’s film, director Peter Bogdanovich once asked Orson Welles whether he had seen Make Way for Tomorrow, and the legendary filmmaker replied: “Oh my God, that’s the saddest movie ever made. It would make a stone cry. And nobody went!”

The dilemma explored by Make Way for Tomorrow is clearly no laughing matter: the loss of the Cooper family house to foreclosure and the elderly parents’ split and displacement into the homes of two of their five grown children. When Bark (Victor Moore) and Lucy (Beulah Bondi) announce their plight to the gathered clan—minus never-seen daughter Addie, who lives in far-away California—eviction is mere days away, severely restricting the options available. Because the film was made in 1937, the Depression inevitably hovers in the background, but McCarey makes no effort to connect the Coopers’ situation to the nation’s larger economic calamity. The movie strongly implies that Bark’s unemployment—he has been out of work for four years—results from a forced retirement, not a layoff. Age is the issue, a specter that will haunt and harry the couple throughout the film.

Prospects for a new parental abode are slim: Youngest son Robert (Ray Mayer) is a genial goofball whose own well-being seems in doubt, and daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon) has an out-of-work husband (Ralph Remley) and a smallish house without a spare bedroom. George (Thomas Mitchell), the responsible eldest, appears better off, but there is limited space in the New York City apartment he shares with wife Anita (Fay Bainter) and teenage daughter Rhoda (Barbara Read). Smartly dressed daughter Nellie (Minna Gombell), another NYC resident, is clearly best positioned to help—husband Harvey (Porter Hall) owns a business, and no children complicate the living arrangements—but relationships with the son-in-law are chilly. And aid from Addie on the distant West Coast is scarcely considered (Robert peevishly complains that she has never even sent an orange).

Given the circumscribed choices, a painful decision is reached: Lucy will share a room with Rhoda in George’s Gotham apartment, and Bark will bunk on a couch in Cora’s small-town home some 300 miles away. The children offer blithe assurances that the separation is purely temporary—Cora confidently asserts that, after she has words with Harvey, the couple will be reunited under her roof within three months—but the parents harbor doubts. Lucy at least attempts optimism: “Maybe it’ll all work out all right,” she says. “It’ll be very nice living with the children for a while.” But Bark, a jovial cynic, offers a prescient counter: “Yeah—except it never has worked out for anybody else.”

The sequences that follow—alternating between Mother at George’s and Father at Cora’s—prove Bark a prophet. Anita, although claiming sympathy for her mother-in-law’s plight, finds Lucy annoyingly intrusive, and aggrieved Rhoda refuses to bring her friends home because her grandmother insists on gabbing with them. Anita, who teaches bridge to supplement the family income, is especially horrified at the prospect of Lucy pestering her students. Even accommodating George sheepishly admits, “She’s going to be in the way, isn’t she?” But when he calls Nellie in an attempt to pawn his mother off for the evening, his sister demurs: “I can’t take her tonight,” she declares. More ominously, an eavesdropping Harvey makes it clear that his wife’s earlier promise to shelter Lucy and Bark will prove entirely empty: “Tell him you can’t take her anytime,” he insists. “I’m not going to have your parents here. I married you. I didn’t marry your folks.”

Bark fares no better with Cora, who proves bellicose and controlling. Escaping her iron-fisted authority with visits to the store of new friend Max (Maurice Moscovitch), Bark shoulders at least partial blame for his daughter’s ill temper: “I guess I’m pretty bothersome to have around.” But philosophical Max disagrees, asserting that children always seem ashamed of their parents, whatever the circumstances. The storekeeper’s suspicions about Cora’s arbitrary unpleasantness are later confirmed by firsthand experience, when she first bars Max from seeing a bedridden Bark, who is suffering from a cold, and then harshly scolds him for bringing her father some restorative chicken soup. Increasingly weary of sharing her house, Cora soon recognizes an escape in Bark’s illness: Claiming that the hard winters of the Northeast are bad for their father’s health, she contacts Addie in temperate California and convinces her sister to take him in. Once again, however, there is room for only one parent, which means that the distance separating the couple will only increase.

As the film moves into its final third, McCarey—who has already delivered a thoroughly admirable work, by turns tough-minded and heart-rending—ventures into entirely new and exalted territory. To quote Robin Wood, it is at this “point where a very good film becomes a great one.”

Meanwhile, the tenuous peace at George’s is now permanently disturbed, with Anita unfairly blaming her mother-in-law for the troubles that ensue after a surreptitious rendezvous between sexually precocious high-schooler Rhoda and a 35-year-old beau. In Anita’s view, only Lucy’s expulsion can restore order. Having glimpsed an incriminating envelope in the mail, Lucy realizes that she’s about to be dispatched to the Idylwild Home for Aged Women and sweetly spares anguished George from delivering the grim news by preemptively requesting a move to the facility, which she falsely claims to admire from a previous visit. But because she has described Idylwild as unremittingly bleak in a letter to her husband, a concerned Lucy also insists that Bark not be told of her relocation. “It’ll be the first secret I’ve ever had from him,” she confesses, before sharing “another little secret” with George—that he was always her favorite child. Shattered, George tearfully embraces his mother and shuffles to his bedroom to inform Anita. “Well, that’s that,” he blankly intones. Staring into the mirror with undisguised self-loathing, George sarcastically tells his wife: “As the years go by, you can look back on this day and be mighty proud of me.”

As the film moves into its final third, McCarey—who has already delivered a thoroughly admirable work, by turns tough-minded and heart-rending—ventures into entirely new and exalted territory. To quote Robin Wood, whose eloquent essay in his collection Sexual Politics and Narrative Film: Hollywood and Beyond (1998) serves as the definitive critical statement on Make Way for Tomorrow, it is at this “point where a very good film becomes a great one.”

Afforded a precious five hours in New York City before the train’s departure for California, the reunited Bark and Lucy are first seen taking an arm-in-arm stroll in Central Park. The obvious use of rear projection—they seem less to walk than to float above the sidewalk—lends the scene a dreamlike quality, indicating a clean break from the film’s first hour: Family is left behind, and the couple becomes central. Resting on a bench, the two debate the cause of their current sorry state, with each attempting to take the blame. Bark bemoans his lack of business acumen, calling himself the “town clown,” but Lucy sees fault in herself: “You don’t sow wheat and reap ashes, Pa,” she sighs. Resuming their walk, Bark sees a “Help Wanted” sign in a clothing-store window and ducks in to make one final gallant attempt to find a job and spare them from separation. His disappointment when he quickly exits—rejected again as too old—echoes a poignant earlier scene from his exile in Cora’s small town. Passing an employment office, Bark—lacking his reading specs—inquires of a person loitering in the doorway whether any bookkeeping positions are posted. Looking at him skeptically, the man asks, “Were you a bookkeeper?” Offended, Bark replies, “I am a bookkeeper.” But age has rendered him irrelevant to others.

Mercifully, this air of melancholy is soon dispelled by a chance meeting. Noticing Bark and Lucy looking in his car-dealership window, a salesperson mistakes them for potential buyers and offers a drive. Not recognizing that he is trying to peddle a car, the couple accepts—a ride would be larkish fun, a relief from their troubles. As they are grandly chauffeured down New York’s streets, Bark and Lucy turn nostalgic, reminiscing about their post-wedding trip to the city 50 year ago—their sole vacation before the arrival of children made such leisure impossible. Overhearing, the salesman suggests a visit to their honeymoon hotel and delivers them to its doorstep. On arrival, the salesman finally recognizes that the couple can not afford a car, and they are acutely embarrassed for wasting his time. Generously dismissing their concerns, he assures Bark and Lucy that he enjoyed their company and appreciated the opportunity to show off his car. He thus becomes the first of a series of strangers who offer Bark and Lucy the sort of kindness and understanding so consistently denied them by their own offspring.

Hotels, of course, specialize in hospitality, but the employees of the Vogard enfold these returning honeymooners in the warmest of embraces, treating them to drinks (“two old-fashions for two old-fashioned people”) and dinner, and actively engaging them in conversation—a vivid contrast to their children’s insistence on silencing them. Blessedly relieved of the burdens of family—Bark has telephoned the kids to inform them that they will not be coming to a farewell dinner at Nellie’s—the couple rekindles the romance that time has dampened: At age 70, they remain swooningly in love. So intimate is their connection that the film even provides a postmodern acknowledgement of the intensely private space the pair inhabits. As they lean in for a kiss at dinner, Lucy looks back, directly to the camera, and appears to recognize that an audience is watching. Rather than share this privileged moment, she withdraws demurely.

Bark and Lucy end their Vogard stay with a waltz. As they arrive on the dance floor, however, the band begins a jazzier number, and the couple is suddenly stranded, unable to adapt to this abrupt change—a beautiful metaphor for their overall dilemma. But in another act of compassion, the orchestra leader sees their confusion and calls for “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” allowing Bark and Lucy a reprieve from the relentlessly fast pace of modernity, a last chance for a slow dance together. Departing the hotel for the train station, they then reprise the song in the back of a cab, with Bark serenading his “sweetheart” before Lucy joins her voice with his in a tender duet.

Few more desolate endings can be found in cinema, and McCarey bravely resisted studio pressure to provide a Hollywood-style solution to the Coopers’ problems. He paid the price for his resolute stand: When the film failed at the box office—the public predictably finding such a frank treatment of aging too dispiriting—McCarey was dismissed from his Paramount contract.

Throughout this long sequence, the film deliberately keeps its focus on Bark and Lucy, marginalizing the children to a few brief inserts. But McCarey now returns to the kids, who are still gathered together for the family dinner their parents chose to abandon, and they belatedly acknowledge their abhorrent behavior. “It’s funny, isn’t it?” observes Robert. “We’ve known all along that we were probably the most good-for-nothing kids that were ever raised, but it didn’t bother us much till we found out that Pop knew it, too.” In a modest gesture of respect, George withholds from his siblings the fact that Father’s train is about to depart, granting Bark and Lucy the chance to be alone in their final moments together. When Nellie complains, “But if we don’t go to the station, they’ll think we’re terrible,” George offers a succinct and damning reply: “Aren’t we?”

Returning to Bark and Lucy, Make Way for Tomorrow reaches its wrenching conclusion as the couple say their goodbyes in front of the waiting train. Both recognize that this will likely be last time they see each other, but neither is quite prepared to face that terrible reality. Although they pretend another reunion still awaits them in the future, their declarations of love make the finality of the separation all too apparent. “It’s been very nice knowing you, Miss Breckenridge,” says Bark—the use of Lucy’s maiden name subtly indicating his awareness that the 50-year marriage has reached its bittersweet end. Lucy in turn announces, “I’d sooner be your wife, Bark, than anyone else on Earth.” Embracing, they exchange a few last kisses before he boards for departure. Left alone on the platform, a disconsolate Lucy watches as her husband’s train pulls from the station, discreetly turning her back to us and exiting as “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” again swells on the soundtrack.

Few more desolate endings can be found in cinema, and McCarey bravely resisted studio pressure to provide a Hollywood-style solution to the Coopers’ problems. He paid the price for his resolute stand: When the film failed at the box office—the public predictably finding such a frank treatment of aging too dispiriting—McCarey was dismissed from his Paramount contract. Time, however, has vindicated the director, and the film’s reputation only continues to grow. Influential admirers have ranged from George Bernard Shaw to Alexander Payne, with Yasujirô Ozu—one of film history’s most universally admired figures—citing Make Way for Tomorrow as the inspiration for his own enduring masterpiece about the elderly, Tokyo Story (1953).

The filmmaker himself ranked Make Way for Tomorrow as his finest achievement. When McCarey accepted the Oscar as Best Director for The Awful Truth, a film he made the same year, he waggishly remarked that the Academy had given him the award for the wrong picture. No one who watches Make Way for Tomorrow is likely to disagree.

[i] Some of the more notable films about aging, old people, and multi-generational strife include I’m Not Rappaport (1996) with Walter Matthau and Ossie Davis; Harold and Maude (1971) with Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon; The Bucket List (2007) with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson; The Shootist (1976) with John Wayne and Lauren Becall; Secondhand Lions (2003) with Robert Duvall and Michael Caine; On Golden Pond (1981) with Jane Fonda and Henry Fonda; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) with Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt; About Schmidt (2002) with Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates; Cocoon (1985) with Don Ameche and Wilford Brimley; Driving Miss Daisy (1989) with Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy; Harry and Tonto (1974) with Art Carney and Ellen Burstyn; Away From Her (2006) with Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent; The Straight Story (1999) with Richard Farnsworth and Sissy Spacek; Iris (2001) with Judi Dench and Kate Winslet; The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974) with Cicely Tyson and Richard Dysart; Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005) with Tyler Perry and Shemar Moore and Perry’s Madea sequels; Ride the High Country (1962) with Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott; A Raisin in the Sun (1961) with Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee.