Make Way for Tomorrow (1937). 92 minutes. Directed by Leo McCarey. Starring Victor Moore (as Barkley “Pa” Cooper), Beulah Bondi (as Lucy “Ma” Cooper), Thomas Mitchell (as George Cooper), Fay Bainter (as Anita Cooper), Barbara Read (as Rhoda Cooper), Maurice Moscovitch (as Max Rubens), Elisabeth Risdon (as Cora Payne), Minna Gombell (as Nellie Chase), Porter Hall (as Harvey Chase), Ray Meyer (as Robert Cooper), Ralph Remley (as Bill Payne), Louise Beavers (as Mamie), Paul Stanton (as Mr. Horton), and Dell Henderson (as Ed Weldon).
You may have already heard about the Depression-era film Make Way for Tomorrow, even if you have never seen it. Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris called it “the most depressing movie ever made,” and Orson Welles told Peter Bogdanovich that “it would make a stone cry.” It has not achieved the commercial success or popular recognition of other critically acclaimed films of its time but is today considered to be an overlooked classic, an unflinching look at aging and the lack of compassion that society has for the elderly—especially the cruelty of children towards their own parents.
Make Way for Tomorrow tells the story of elderly Barkley and Lucy Cooper, who at the beginning of the movie summon together four of their adult children—George, Cora, Nellie, and Robert— in order to announce that the bank is foreclosing on their house and they will soon have nowhere to live. The Cooper children wish to help but are not enthusiastic about taking their parents in. None of them is willing to host both parents at once. Finally, an arrangement is made whereby Barkley will live with daughter Cora, and Lucy will live with their son, George. However, both Barkley and Lucy have difficulty adjusting to their children’s homes. Barkley catches cold at Cora’s during the winter, thus giving her the opportunity to suggest that he move west to her sibling Addie’s house, which is in a warmer climate. Meanwhile, Lucy makes George’s wife Anita uncomfortable, embarrassing her in front of her bridge students, and inconveniences George and Anita’s daughter Rhoda, with whom she must share a room. George and Anita secretly decide to move Lucy into an old age home, one that she has visited and written to Barkley about with disgust and horror. When she accidentally intercepts a letter from the home, she discovers that George has already made the arrangements for her to move. Feeling powerless but seeing that her son is embarrassed by what he has done, Lucy consents to move there on the condition that they never tell Barkley where she will be living.
Just before Barkley is to move west, he spends an afternoon with Lucy in New York City. The two visit the hotel where they spent their honeymoon and have cocktails. They determine that they will not see their children for dinner that evening as scheduled before Barkley’s train leaves, a decision that prompts the four adult children, led by Robert, to conclude that they are not very upstanding sons and daughters. As Barkley boards his train for California, he tells Lucy he will find a job and send for her, and she tells him she believes him, but they say their final farewells anyway. We get the feeling that they may never see each other again.
Make Way for Tomorrow is often compared to the similarly dark but quieter Tokyo Story (1953), a Japanese film based on Make Way for Tomorrow about an elderly couple who come to Tokyo to visit their many adult children. Widely considered to be one of the greatest movies ever made, and exceedingly beautiful in its understatedness, Tokyo Story does not, however, seem as gut-wrenchingly sad to me as Make Way for Tomorrow. In Tokyo Story, elderly parents Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama, who are also thought to be a nuisance by their children, seem so much less aged and frail than Barkley and Lucy. Additionally, the Hirayamas do not lose their home over the course of the film; they maintain their independence. Tokyo Story also offers some relief in the sense that the Hirayamas are actually dearly loved by their widowed daughter-in-law Noriko, who cares for them with great affection. But primarily one of the biggest differences to my mind between Tokyo Story and Make Way for Tomorrow is that while one member of the elderly couple dies in the Japanese movie, in the American film Lucy and Barkley must continue on, living apart, and with Lucy in an old age home that she will lie about to Barkley for as long as he is alive. The end of Make Way for Tomorrow, in other words, seems to be just the beginning of the elderly couple’s sufferings.
Make Way for Tomorrow is difficult to bear for many reasons: the infirmity of Barkley and Lucy, who walk slowly and feebly and speak with voices that creak and strain; their loneliness and isolation; their trouble fitting in; the adult children’s universally callow behavior towards their parents. I would be tempted to call the movie a tearjerker because its story is so sorrowful, but I think that would be unfair. A tearjerker is a sentimental and manipulative story that seeks to make us cry, particularly because it does not have much else to offer us. Make Way for Tomorrow is not a tearjerker in that way: it is rich, sophisticated, and decidedly unsentimental, and it does not use cheap tricks to elicit an emotional response. Its sorrow and uneasiness come from the characters’ slow decline and enduring powerlessness.
One of the movie’s great strengths, and another reason that it, although very sad, is not a tearjerker, is its tendency to show us the reality of Barkley and Lucy’s living situations with a fair amount of nuance. Lucy in particular, while weak and vulnerable, nevertheless complicates her situation in George and Anita’s apartment. George’s wife Anita harbors especially hostile feelings towards Lucy, and yet we see how Lucy could behave differently towards her daughter-in-law. For example,when Lucy has her old rocking chair placed in the middle of the living room during one of Anita’s bridge school sessions and proceeds to rock noisily in it, we may cringe when we see Anita react with shame and frustration; but we also cringe to hear Lucy in the squeaking chair. One of the wonderful things about the movie is that we can feel compassion for Lucy but still find her behavior to be unnecessary, perhaps even inconsiderate—although we know she means no harm to Anita or her society pupils. Anita may be unfeeling, and her lack of empathy for her mother-in-law may be unsettling, but we can also understand, at least in a small way, why there is tension between the two women.
To be fair to Lucy, the scene in which she rocks noisily in her chair is reflective of her belief that her life can continue as it was in her new living environment, in spite of evidence to the contrary. Most of us like to think that we will be cherished in our advanced days by people whom we have loved throughout our lives. Barkley and Lucy clearly have the same dream, but their circumstances fall desperately short of it, and in the continuous revelation of the difference between what they hope for and what they have lies much of the film’s emotional power. Lucy’s assumption that she can continue in her old habits in her new surroundings is related to a number of fictions that she tells herself.
Indeed, in spite of Barkley and Lucy’s dire circumstances, they live in a strange and pathetic fantasy world, one that neither one of them seems to believe in completely but that both maintain nonetheless: Barkley is constantly looking for work, even at his advanced age, and failing to secure employment, but he always shares news with Lucy that he is right on the verge of finding a job that will allow them to live together again. Lucy for her part gives into the fantasy, encouraging Barkley and insisting that their fortunes will turn around. We might be tempted to tell both of them to face reality, but then we hear Lucy’s granddaughter Rhoda say that very thing to her one night when the two are alone in George and Anita’s apartment, and the exchange has to be one of the most heartbreaking in the entire movie. Lucy explains to Rhoda that in her situation, fantasy is what she has to cling to, and the only comfort Rhoda offers is an apology before leaving the room.
One of the puzzling things about this movie is that there are no major quarrels or conflicts among the family members—no long-running points of strife, feuds, or major bones of contention between the adult children and their parents. Instead, the major conflict in their relationship seems mostly to be that the children consider their parents to be an inconvenience and do not want to care for them. At its core, the movie does not offer us betrayal, violence, or intrigue: instead it explores what it is like to be considered a perpetual nuisance. I am reminded here of another great story about parents and children, Shakespeare’s King Lear, whose titular character in his old age places himself in the care of his daughters only to find that two of them, Regan and Goneril, detest him and seek to humiliate him while he lives with them. They treat their father like a child, sending him to each other’s houses to dispose of him, and regard him as a pest.
In both Make Way for Tomorrow and King Lear, we wonder how the adult children have grown to be so intolerant of their parents, so unfeeling. In Lear we have the sense that Lear’s judgment has never been very astute; perhaps he has contributed to his children’s malevolence. During Lucy and Barkley’s cab ride in New York, we hear them musing about the state of their relationship with their children: you don’t plant wheat and reap ashes, Lucy remarks, so perhaps the parents are to blame—but the movie does not dwell for long on the source of the children’s bad behavior. The fact that Make Way for Tomorrow even bothers to bring up the role the parents played in the development of their children’s psychology compounds the sense that we are looking at a complicated couple whose situation seems all the more plausible because it is tinged with a sense of failure.
One of the final ways in which Make Way for Tomorrow resembles King Lear is that both stories seem to want to push us to witness sadness and suffering up to a point where we ask for relief. But neither story will offer us relief while it is playing out. As Barkley departs on his train for the West and Lucy pauses for a moment in the station to collect herself, we are not sure what she will do, or what she can do. We see her resolve to turn around and walk back towards her destiny, towards the old age home and the children who want her to live there rather than with them. The relief comes only because the movie ends, not because of the way that it ends. But to think of what lies ahead for these characters, the loneliness and isolation and lack of warmth and feeling, is a lot. One good thing about art is that, as Aristotle teaches, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end—it stops, in other words, even though real life carries on. For some art, that in itself is almost a relief.