Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Film Reviews

Program note: Make Way for Tomorrow

[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]

[promotion for a July 13, 1974 Seattle Film Society showing]

LEO McCAREY (1898–1969) is primarily remembered as a director of comedies. He won his two directorial Oscars for The Awful Truth (1937) and Going My Way (1944), and he guided some of the onscreen shenanigans of Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Mae West, W.C. Fields, Harold Lloyd, and Eddie Cantor, as well as comic actors like Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Ginger Rogers, Barry Fitzgerald, and Frank McHugh. If, like me, you are bothered by the idea that a man could win an Oscar for Best Direction with a film that opens with a stock shot (a tugboat putting across New York Harbor in The Awful Truth—and in the next year’s Holiday, directed by George Cukor), you may wonder what qualifies Leo McCarey as a tenant of the Far Side of Paradise in Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema. For it is not visual authority that distinguishes his work. (For that matter, how much great screen comedy makes you think of “visual style” at all?) But that work is distinguished, and it is distinguished as director’s cinema, not screenwriter’s cinema or—though the actors are frequently superb—actor’s cinema.

Jean Renoir had it when he observed, “McCarey understands people—better perhaps than anyone else in Hollywood.” Understanding people figures in The Battle of the Century or Duck Soup on only the most abstract, comedic-allegorical level, but it has everything to do with turning the whimsy of Ruggles of Red Gap into the spiritually majestic (but still comic) affirmation of individual dignity and nationalistic idealism that it is, or investing the screwball transactions of The Awful Truth with emotional resonance and thrillingly sensual (while still comic) charge. Still, when it comes to understanding people, Renoir was surely thinking of Make Way for Tomorrow when he made his quotable comment. It is the finest, richest, most singular McCarey film I have seen (l ought to mention that I haven’t seen Love Affair, which has its endorsers), and I sympathize with Charles Silver when he says, “[McCarey] preferred Make Way for Tomorrow to The Awful Truth, and so do I. It is a film of so devastating an emotional impact, of such indescribable inner beauty, as to make a critic throw his typewriter out the window in frustration over his inability to capture in mere words the feelings McCarey’s sensibility evokes.”

A great way to unsell the movie is to say that it’s about old age, but that has to be said. The film tells of a couple who, married for half a century, must be separated when they lose their home and go to live—temporarily, at first—with various offspring. McCarey is utterly scrupulous: the children (that is, people in their forties) are mostly presented as decent, caring, credibly patient souls who simply have their own lives to lead; the parents are possessed of great dignity, but we readily see, regardless of our sympathy, that each represents a dreadful hindrance to the households that take them in. There is a sequence involving a bridge evening (the daughter-in-law played by Fay Bainter teaches bridge once a week to provide a necessary subsidy to the family income) that is breathtakingly accurate and comprehensive, a masterpiece of all-but-invisible selection of detail, camera angle and distance, that powerfully—and comically—catches the mixed feelings of everyone in the room as Beulah Bondi talks overloud to Victor Moore on the telephone. Like the rest of the film, it’s a marvel of directness and discretion commingled. McCarey was obviously aware how much his cinema amounted to a collection of “moments”; his worst films, pictures like Once upon a Honeymoon or Good Sam, are low-pressure narratives in which this sort of scene, gone wrong, abounds: embarrassingly empty moments in which the players stand around smiling odd smiles at one another, italicizing the improvisational nature of their dialogue, insisting desperately that some luminous naturalness just has to result with McCarey in the director’s chair. But in Make Way for Tomorrow the style is married to an uncompromising intelligence; means and meaning are one, and there is no room for mannerism. A film of profound feeling and enormous impact, it is sentimental in the best way without being sentimentalized in the least.

Make Way for Tomorrow is, quite simply, the most remarkable film I’ve encountered in the last film season (I caught it on Canadian television). It does what only the best films do: after you’ve seen it, you see the world a little differently.


Direction: Leo McCarey. Screenplay: Viña Delmar. Cinematography: William C. Mellor. A Paramount Picture.
The Players: Beulah Bondi, Victor Moore, Thomas Mitchell, Fay Bainter, Barbara Reed, Minna Gombell, Porter Hall, Elisabeth Risdon, Maurice Moscovitch.

Copyright © 1974 Richard T. Jameson