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I knew all along it was going to end badly. Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow harbors no illusions about where it’s going to conclude. From the opening scene, where two elderly parents inform their adult children that the bank is about to seize their home, it’s clear that there is no escape for these people.
A couple things nevertheless surprised me about Make Way for Tomorrow. The first is the naturalistic performances. The narrative may lend itself to high melodrama and heightened emotions, but McCarey has his actors tend to underplay and suppress. They stumble and step on each other’s lines in a genuine, realistic way.
The key performances, obviously, are Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi as the elderly parents. They are so tender and fragile, their voices cracking and breaking with every line, as though they’re about to collapse into dust at any moment. It’s heartbreaking just to watch them go about their days. Death is slow in Make Way for Tomorrow. It doesn’t come all at once, but piecemeal over a long time. When the two say farewell in that devastating final scene, they know it’s goodbye for good. They know that they don’t have life enough left to make it to another meeting. No one dies in Make Way for Tomorrow, but that’s only because they’re all dead from the start. Death’s inevitability ruins what life one might have left, and the film spends no time making peace with it.
It’s that last point that sits most uncomfortably with me, and why the film is so powerfully tragic. When Pa Cooper boards that train at the end, he does so still uneasy and upset by the finality of his farewell. When Ma Cooper watches him go, she suffers the same lack of closure. When the film leaves them, they still have months left to live, months of separation, months knowing that the end will come for one of them before they get to see each other again. And the film comes up with no comfort for them. There is no quelling of despair. There isn’t even a discussion of the afterlife, or indeed any religious mitigation of their anguish. Make Way for Tomorrow feels almost sacrilegious in its total dismissal of comfort in faith. It feels especially unusual for a film of the time.
Just as unusual is the film’s tone. For as bleak as its ending is, it’s quite funny in places. Most of the middle of the film is a sort of comedy of errors, with Ma Cooper blundering through the lives of her daughter-in-law and granddaughter in a humorously clueless way. The scene where she brings down the mood at a bridge class her daughter-in-law is hosting by loudly discussing her misery on the phone with her husband is hilarious. Make Way for Tomorrow isn’t unwilling to find ironic humor in the terrible circumstances of its characters. Still, it never stoops to mockery. The comedy always comes from the humanity of these characters, and never from ridiculing their pitiable situation.
It’s a thin wire to walk on, and McCarey does admirable work. How easy it would have been to slip into outright farce or dour drama. And Make Way for Tomorrow loses none of its wit or its grace by walking down the middle. It’s all the more powerful for having a foot in both forms. Though its ending ensures that I’m not likely to rewatch it for some time, Make Way for Tomorrow is a gently yet profoundly moving film, and I’m glad I got to see it.