When Leo McCarey won an Academy Award for directing The Awful Truth, he began his acceptance speech with the following: “I want to thank the Academy for this wonderful award, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture.” That same year also saw the release of one McCarey’s saddest, and perhaps most significant film, Make Way For Tomorrow. A wonderfully versatile comedic director, whose credits range from the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup to the romantic An Affair to Remember, McCarey’s Make Way For Tomorrow might make you laugh, but it almost certainly will make you cry.
The film’s opening puts its thematic cards on the table: this is a film exploring the fifth commandment, “honor thy father and thy mother.” The first scene shows the four Cooper siblings returning home to their elderly parents, Barkley (Victor Moore) and Lucy (Beulah Bondi), who reveal that their house is in foreclosure. The siblings decide to split mom and dad between them for a few months, just until a new home can be secured. Barkley and Lucy have never really been apart from one another, but what can be done? They are at the mercy of their children.
What makes this opening scene work so well is its ability to reveal so much about each character with very little in the way of action or dialogue. This scene—and the entire film—is one of the better pictures of familial dynamics, how selfish desires and miscommunication create tension and drama. George (Thomas Mitchell) is the older, responsible brother, who gladly offers to take his mother in. Cora (Elisabeth Risdon) is the cynical, glass-half-empty sister who reluctantly takes in their father, mostly due to viewing their clownish younger brother, Robert (Ray Mayer) as irresponsible and their wealthy, pretentious sister Nellie (Minna Gombell) as her competition. You feel like you already know these characters—there’s a George, a Nellie, a Cora, and a Robert in every family.
Lucy and Barkley sadly part ways, a situation which only becomes more tragic as we begin to understand their marital relationship. Their marriage is one of my favorites to watch on screen, as there aren’t too many films featuring strong, healthy, honest marriages. It’s easier and more dramatic to depict a marriage falling apart; it’s much harder (both in movies and in real life) to foster healthy relationships of commitment and compassion. Bondi and Moore imbue a youthful vitality in their elderly couple, one which makes their separation due to circumstances all the more disheartening.
Read the rest of my review at Reel World Theology.