Take a Drink: every time a scene starts out comical, but gets emotional by the end.
Take a Drink: whenever you would lose patience with either of the lead characters if you were forced to live with them.
Take a Drink: for every moment you are reminded of your own parents/grandparents.
Finish Your Drink: for the single most emotionally devastating goodbye scene ever put to film.
By: Christian Harding (A Toast) –
Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow is one of the truly great underrated masterpieces from the classic era of American cinema. While it hasn’t gained much notoriety outside of more serious film lover circles, it hasn’t lost its impact in the slightest after more than 75 years since its premiere, and it’s even had an observable influence on the careers of certain industry heavyweights. Orson Welles himself proclaimed that it could make a stone cry, and it was also the inspiration for Yasujiro Ozu’s much better known post-WW2 era domestic drama Tokyo Story as well as this year’s gay romance Love is Strange. Even McCarey himself famously said upon winning a Best Director Oscar for his screwball comedy The Awful Truth, released during the same year: “Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong film.” Cute line, but there’s definitely some truth to his statement. Although what’s even more incredible than all these influences and charming asides surrounding it are the merits of the actual film itself.
“Is this the way to Country Kitchen Buffet?”
The story concerns an elderly couple, Lucy and Bark, who are forced to separate when they lose their home due to the Great Depression and none of their five children are able (nor willing) to take both parents. ‘Twas a blue Christmas indeed. Right from the start, Make Way for Tomorrow is quietly observant about the inherent awkwardness of the situation. None of the children are cruel to their elders, and they all speak with their parents kindly, but each one has their own set of limits. However, none of them are portrayed as unnecessarily cruel or villainous either. It’s just that the situation is pushing everyone’s buttons, and all those involved are simply too polite to be the first one to speak out.
Take, for instance, a scene which occurs fairly early on in the film. Lucy has just come back from spending an evening with her niece at the movie theater and is unknowingly obnoxious towards her daughter-in-law’s bridge teaching class. She then receives a long distance phone call from Bark, and loudly disrupts the class even further to talk with her love for the first time in weeks. The scene starts out slightly comical but becomes sad pretty soon, and by the time the phone call is over, even becomes quite heartbreaking. McCarey was a master of emotional triggering, capable of tugging on the heartstrings with subtle tone shifts that never feel cheap or manipulative. Modern directors such as Steven Spielberg and Ang Lee would follow in his example, but nobody has been able to truly replicate this with such perfection since.
The film also contains one of the greatest third acts in cinematic history. It has Lucy and Bark spending their last afternoon alone together, walking the streets of New York City, simply wandering from place to place, all of which culminates in an emotionally devastating goodbye at a train station, as the couple parts ways, possibly forever – and it’s just as touching as it sounds. Nothing much happens in the way of an actual plot, as this section of the film is entirely reliant on the strong connection felt between the lead couple, but it’s nonetheless positively captivating. Leo McCarey was able to flawlessly depict the underlying sadness of their separation, while successfully managing to maintain a rather low-key, easy-going tonality throughout the entire runtime, unless a scene called for some heavier emphasis.
You will believe a stone could cry.
The late and great film critic Roger Ebert once wrote that entertainment is about the way things should be, and that art is about the way they are. The most powerful films often simply depict the events of the story without telegraphing the audience how to feel about what they’re seeing. It’s sometimes hard to believe that a film this emotionally raw and unrelenting was released by the Hollywood studio system in 1937. It’s one of the great lost treasures of a filmmaking generation long since past, and it should be recognized as such.