As a life-long movie buff, I sometimes think I’ve seen most, if not all, of the movies worth seeing. But every once in awhile I’m happily surprised to discover a little-noticed masterpiece. It’s Leo McCarthy’s “Make Way for Tomorrow” (1937), which The New York Times praises as a movie “bursting with human truth” and which The New York Post says “may be the best movie you’ve never heard of.” After 72 years and not previously available in the U.S. on video, I watched the newly-restored high definition DVD this morning, thanks to a newspaper review I read a few days ago.
Beyond the simple, now too familiar story of a long-married elderly couple who can’t make their house payments, lose their home to the bank, and have to separate to live with their hard-pressed grown-up children, the film has an up-to-the-minute inescapable immediacy. I couldn’t be more moved by its prescience. This Depression-era human drama is set against the financial and emotional challenges families face when bankruptcies and mortgage foreclosures occur. The relevance is unmistakable with these very challenges reverberating in 2010. What an emotional impact this film carries.
On another level, there’s the underlying thread of the particular challenges the elderly face. The loss of independence, dignity, and self-worth along with the literal and figurative loss of place are devastating. No person wants to feel burdensome to their loved ones and this is especially true of the elderly. And even when they’re not as economically eviscerated as the film’s Barkley and Lucy Cooper, the elderly today remain all too vulnerable to exploitation from seemingly all quarters. Consequently, the movie is affecting on that level, too.
Make Way for Tomorrow is not the usual happy-Hollywood-ending movie. The film’s closing scenes have the Coopers likely spending their last 5 hours together revisiting their honeymoon 50 years prior. They then tenderly have to separate. The final scene is heartachingly moving.
Of the movie, reknown film actor Orson Welles said, “It would make a stone cry.” So while lacking a Happily-Ever-After, this sweet, sentimental story nevertheless has much to recommend it.