The Vault


Make Way for Tomorrow
and The Awful Truth:
Leo McCarey and the Sacred Region of Romantic Love

By Damien Bona

The opening shot of Make Way For Tomorrow shows a sturdy, comfortable-looking house in the snow, smoke emanating from two chimneys--it could be the picture on a sentimental Christmas card. But director Leo McCarey knew how to set up audiences and then undercut their expectations. From this idyllic opening he was about to confront audiences with a plangent deconstruction of the myths Americans like to hold dear about familial relations. What is particularly striking, though, is that, while criticizing the specious, bathetic tenets of what decades later came to be known as "family values," McCarey also indelibly panegyrized the transcendent power of romantic love between a married couple.

Make Way For Tomorrow tells the story of Lucy and Bark (Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore), an elderly married couple who must give up their house because -- with the husband having been out of work for several years -- they can no longer make their mortgage payments. The result is that, for the first time after fifty years of marriage they'll have to be apart for a spell; each will stay with one of their five grown-up children, none of the offspring having the space -- or, more accurately, the inclination -- to take in both parents. As the film continues, it becomes clear that, through a confluence of events, the couple will permanently spend the rest of their lives away from each other, except for a single last day together in New York City, the place where they spent their honeymoon a half-century earlier. This "second honeymoon" portion makes up the emotional apogee of the movie.

Make Way For Tomorrow's reputation is as the saddest, most poignant portrayal of old age ever put on film. It is that, but also much more. Although the picture is at times almost painful to watch, it is also strangely exhilarating because, in the context of a social drama, McCarey ultimately created an unexpected love story.

McCarey was a hard-core Republican and he doesn't lay blame for the couple's travails on the economic woes of the Depression, from which the country had still not yet fully recovered in 1937. Whereas a Frank Capra would inevitably have featured a pompous windbag of a banker (Edward Arnold, of course) as the avatar of capitalism and the cause of the couple's predicament, in McCarey's world it is human nature and the personal choices freely made -- not the cruel indifference of free enterprise -- that is responsible. In fact, in one of the film's many sly touches, reference is made that as a young woman Lucy had been courted by the town's banker, and she could now be enjoying a life of easy affluence. But she was in love with Bark -- a bookkeeper -- because he made her laugh. Bark even refers to this man who is foreclosing on their mortgage as "a nice guy." And although Bark and Lucy knew of the threat to their home for six months, they didn't tell their children until a few days before eviction proceedings -- they didn't want the brood to be bothered, which speaks both to the couple's irresponsibility and to their knowing exactly what kind of children they raised. In the opening minutes of the movie, before they are faced with any genuine responsibilities towards their parents, the children go through the motions of looking like dutiful offspring; before hearing the news of their parents' new homelessness, the youngest son, the happy-go-lucky Robert (Ray Mayer) even sings that most artificial and treacly of songs, "Mother." ("’M’ is for the many things she gave me . . . ."). In a film that is permeated with ironic motifs, one of the most witheringly paradoxical is that while this first scene consists of a family reunion -- albeit a rather unsettling get-together, as the offspring are noticeably stiff with one another -- it also marks the first step of the dissolution of the family unit.

Lucy moves into the New York apartment of her upwardly mobile son George (Thomas Mitchell), who is the most decent of the five offspring, and his wife, Anita (Fay Bainter). As the narrative begins to unfold, one is not completely certain of the tone of the film -- and McCarey was a master of seamlessly combining dramatic and comedic elements in his work. In fact, the early scenes in which Lucy and Anita are interacting, the soundtrack consists of jaunty music that would befit a light comedy soundtrack.

Anita truly tries to be a kind and dutiful daughter-in-law, but McCarey in no way idealizes Lucy in her dealings with Anita, George, and their rambunctious teen-age daughter, Rhoda (Barbara Reed). Lucy is not the archetypal sweet old granny in a shawl, knitting in a rocker with a cat on her lap, but is rather a classic passive-aggressive, and a viewer is not being honest if he doesn’t acknowledge that this woman would be an enormous pain to have around. One can palpably feel the strain George and Anita are under with her in their home. Lucy does sit in a rocker, but the creaking noise thechair makes interrupts the bridge lessons Anita conducts to bring in money for the household.

Bark is no prize either. Although one doesn't envy him having to live with his dour daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon), he gives as good as he gets and goes out of his way to be disagreeable and peevish. When a good-natured young doctor (Louis Jean Heydt) comes to treat him for a cold, Bark is not simply uncooperative, he bites the physician. It's a master stroke on the part of McCarey and scenarist Viña Delmar that the two old people aren't particularly likable. Such a strategy eschews easy sentimentality but also makes the intense love they feel for each other seem all the more profound in its mysterious workings.

The only times Bark is at ease is when he visits his friend, Max Rubens (Maurice Moscovitch), who runs a general store. Max lives in an apartment connected to the store, and being in his environment is the closest Bark can come to replicating his previous homelife. When McCarey's camera focuses on Max, a tea-kettle is seen steaming away nearby -- a symbol of the domestic tranquility and comfort he enjoys. Having broken his glasses, Bark asks his friend to read him a letter from Lucy. Max complies, but stops in the middle, when Lucy, despairing of their situation, begins to express the depths of her love; Max knows that some spheres of coupledom are so intimate that their boundaries should not be intruded upon by a third person. (In a parallel scene, the members of Anita's bridge class react with discomfort when they are privy to a phone conversation between Lucy and Bark.) Max says of his own children, "They leave me alone. They don't need me and I don't need them," a startling statement from a likable and sympathetic character in a 1937 Hollywood movie. Max adds that he's content because "I got my Sarah" -- his wife. There’s a quietly rending moment when Bark is preparing to leave Max's and he wraps his scarf around himself -- we know that HIS wife, who was always concerned about his catching cold, should lovingly be doing this. Later, the tenderhearted Max takes Sarah's homemade soup to Bark, trying as best he can to fill the uxorial gap in the old man's life.

In one of the loveliest scenes in the movie, Max calls to his wife after Bark has departed. Slightly exasperated at being interrupted from her chores, she asks what he wants. "I just wanted to look at you," he explains. "I wanted to make sure you were there." In this scene--which lasts all of 25 seconds--McCarey crystallizes his belief in the thaumaturgical nature of a marriage founded upon an impassioned love. Max and Sarah Rubens are old, homely people, and yet their ardor has remained unshaken over the years; in its simple and quiet non-erotic way, this exchange constitutes one of the great love scenes in the movies.

With Cora fed up with her father's presence, a confab among the children decides that Bark will be shipped off to another sibling out in California. In a time when coast-to-coast travel was a luxury, this decision seals their parents' fate -- their separation will be permanently. Meanwhile, Lucy has inadvertently been responsible for some serious problems in granddaughter Rhoda's behavior, and Anita argues accusatively with her. McCarey conveys the hopelessness of the situation, and says all that needs to be stated through a series of devastating reaction shots, in which faces of the old woman and her daughter-in-law reveal their despair in realizing that while no one is truly at blame, things cannot remain as they are.

Anita convinces George that his mother has become such a disruptive force that she should no longer stay with them. When, truly shaken, he tries to tell Lucy that they must put her in the Idylwild Home For Aged Women, she pre-empts him -- in a quiet act of heroism -- saying that she wants to go to the Home, and sparing him the necessity of speaking the worst he dreads having to say. Having earlier referred to that institution as "dreary and dismal," she has concluded that if she is not going to be with Bark she might as well just be out of the way. McCarey had Thomas Mitchell play this scene hunched over, as if George were actually crushed by the weight of circumstances, and when Lucy tells him a secret, that he was always her favorite, he breaks down completely.

Bark and Lucy's day together in New York is punctuated by the benevolence of strangers who come across the couple's path, including the nicest car salesman who ever lived. Mistaking them for an eccentric rich couple, he gives the pair a ride in a new coupe hoping to make a sale. When he discovers the truth, he's not put off in the slightest. Contrasting such a kind soul to the Coopers' children, McCarey acknowledges one of life's contradictions: for some people it’s easier to be magnanimous to individuals they don't know -- Humanity in general -- than to their supposed loved ones. During the Coopers' sojourn in Manhattan the tension is almost unbearable as our emotions are split between the warmth engendered by these kindnesses and the agonizing realization that Bark and Lucy only have five hours together, with the clock ticking. Theirs is not a typical "second honeymoon" because, rather than being a rite of renewal, this time together is marking, officially, the end of their physical relationship, of their sharing space. It is a reunion for Bark and Lucy, but just as the family reunion at the beginning of the film was a perversion of what such an event usually signifies, so too is their rendezvous because it will complete the severance that started in the first reel. As if to emblematize that fact, the day starts off with the self-recriminating Coopers verbalizing their shortcomings. Bark says, "The trouble is I was a failure." And Lucy, thinking of their children ruminates, "You don't sow wheat and reap ashes."

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