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Make Way for Tomorrow (Movie 1937): The Discardable Elderly

Make Way for Tomorrow Beulah Bondi Victor Moore
Beulah Bondi, Victor Moore, Make Way for Tomorrow
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The main conflict in Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow revolves around an elderly couple, Barkley and Lucy Cooper (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi), who lose their home and are forced to move in with their adult children. The sons and daughters hesitate, then reluctantly agree to house the couple. But because they have limited space in their own homes, they have to take their parents in separately. And only out of a sense of duty, not love.

Lucy and Bark love each other so deeply that they are heartbroken to be apart. Lucy must live with her eldest son (Thomas Mitchell) and his snooty wife (Fay Bainter), while sharing a room with their teen-aged, boy-crazy daughter Rhoda (Barbara Read).

The old lady is in the way all the time. She intrudes on her daughter-in-law’s bridge class and, with her loud chatter and homespun ways, embarrasses the younger woman in front of her students. In one very funny scene, Lucy plops herself down in a creaky rocking chair, thus becoming a constant distraction to the bridge game. If that’s not bad enough, she scares Rhoda’s friends away, so the girl has to sneak out of the house to see her boyfriend. When she gets in trouble, it becomes all grandma’s fault.

Meanwhile, Bark goes to live in the cramped quarters of one his daughters, Cora (Elisabeth Risdon). He interferes with the household affairs and is an obvious nuisance. When he gets sick, for instance, he is grouchy to the visiting doctor, and would rather be comforted by the shopkeeper, Max (Maurice Moscovitch), whom he has befriended, than by his own daughter.

When Max brings him chicken soup, Cora feels threatened and defensive. She takes it as an insult that someone else can tend to her father better than she can. But it is an artificial kind of attention, more for appearance’s sake than actual sentiment.

The old folks are just as unhappy with this living arrangement as their children are. When Lucy learns that her son and his wife plan to send her to a “Retirement Home for Aged Women,” she saves them from embarrassment by pretending it is her own idea. Meanwhile, the old man is being shuffled around to live with another of his reluctant children.

The couple then arrange to have one last get-together before they die apart. They meet in Manhattan and relive their courtship and reminisce of their youth. Unlike their own flesh-and-blood children, everyone they come in contact with is welcoming and friendly. Even a car salesman, who tries to get them to buy a vehicle they admire, gives them a free ride around the city. Such genuine compassion their children never gave.

Beulah Bondi, Make Way for Tomorrow
Beulah Bondi in Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow

What’s good about Make Way for Tomorrow are the brilliant performances, especially by Beulah Bondi, Fay Bainter, and Victor Moore. The intelligent screenplay by Viña Delmar, based on Josephine Lawrence’s novel, and Helen Leary and Nolan Leary’s play, oftentimes feels realistic. Leo McCarey, for his part, directs the proceedings with an ample amount of humor; not the belly-laugh kind, but as a droll observation about the clash of generations.

So what’s not to like in Make Way for Tomorrow?

Well, the two elderly characters are still active an spry, and they both still have their brains. They are not senile or handicapped in any way. They don’t need custodial care. They have none of the problems that arise when adult children have to care for sick, elderly parents. I don’t see how they could be a nuisance.

Perhaps it would have helped if we knew just what kind of parents they had been to their ungrateful children. Were they abusive or neglecting in any way, to justify their getting such poor treatment in old age?

Sure they may be boring and old-fashioned, but they still have the potential to be helpful. They both have a sense of humor and they are still strong. That just didn’t make sense to me. Bark and Lucy are certainly capable of taking care of themselves when they go to the big city.

If the problem was all about money matters, then that should have been made clear. Granted, the children do express financial hardship in having to support their elderly parents, but that doesn’t seem to be the focal point. As a result, the tear-jerking failed to ring true.

From the wonderful early scenes, I wanted to like Make Way for Tomorrow; however, I felt manipulated by the end. After all, we get to see them conquering New York City all by themselves; yet, they could not come to any kind of settlement with the way their children were treating them.

My criticism is minor compared to the skill with which this story is told in the first half. The characters are believable and some of the dialogue comes across as quite natural and realistic – that is, until the final scenes. In sum, I can say I admired Make Way for Tomorrow, but with reservations.

© Danny Fortune

Make Way for Tomorrow (movie 1937) cast & crew

Director: Leo McCarey.

Screenplay: Viña Delmar.
From Josephine Lawrence’s novel, and Helen Leary and Nolan Leary’s play.

Cast: Victor Moore. Beulah Bondi. Fay Bainter. Thomas Mitchell. Porter Hall. Barbara Read. Elisabeth Risdon. Maurice Moscovitch. Minna Gombell. Louise Beavers.

Make Way for Tomorrow movie images: The Criterion Collection.

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