Classic Movies

Buried Treasures: Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)


At the Academy Awards ceremony on March 10, 1938, director Leo McCarey graciously accepted the Best Director Oscar for his classic screwball comedy The Awful Truth (1937), thanking the Academy and his peers for bestowing upon him such an honor.  He also added: “But you gave it to me for the wrong picture.”  The film to which he was referring was Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), a Paramount release that while receiving much critical acclaim (not to mention admiration from some of his fellow directors like John Ford and Frank Capra) was a disaster at the box office…and even though the movie’s poor performance resulted in studio head Adolph Zukor’s refusal to renew his contract, it would become one of McCarey’s favorites among his many classic films.

(I apologize for getting out of the habit of issuing spoiler warnings.  So if you haven’t had the opportunity to see this masterpiece, you might want to “make way for tomorrow” and join us again for B-Western Wednesday.)

Elderly couple Barkley (Victor Moore) and Lucy Cooper (Beulah Bondi) have invited their children—George (Thomas Mitchell), Robert (Ray Mayer), Nellie (Minna Gombell) and Cora (Elisabeth Risdon)—over to their modest home for a get-together (the couple have a fifth child, daughter Addy, whom we do not see or meet)…to let them know that they’ll will soon be forced to vacate said modest homestead when the bank forecloses (Pa Cooper has been out of work for some time, unable to find a job due to his age and extended illness).  Because time is of the essence (the Coopers deliberately did not inform any of their offspring, hoping that their situation would improve) a solution is needed quickly to keep Ma and Pa from joining the ranks of the homeless…and it stands to reason that daughter Nellie’s home would provide the necessary space to accommodate both parents.  Nellie begs off for three months, telling all assembled that she’ll have to sell her husband Harvey (Porter Hall) on the idea…and so because none of the other kids have the room for both parents Barkley and Lucy will have to be temporarily separated.

Barbara Read and Fay Bainter in Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

Lucy moves in with George, and her presence creates friction with both his wife Anita (Fay Bainter) and daughter Rhoda (Barbara Read)—Anita objects to having Lucy around when she’s teaching classes on how to play bridge; Rhoda no longer will invite “gentleman callers” over because she’s ashamed of her grandmother.  Barkley’s situation with daughter Cora and her husband Bill (Ralph Remley) isn’t much better: he confides in a friend of his, Max Rubens (Maurice Moscovitch), that Cora is a disagreeable harridan; complications also arise when Barkley is laid up with a cold (he’s distrustful of the young doctor [Louis Jean Heydt] and Cora is none too pleased when Max shows up to visit his friend).  Nellie, in the meantime, reneges on her agreement to take her parents in when husband Harvey complains of the arrangement.

Cora gets the unseen Addy to agree to accept Barkley in her home in California; the doctor who administered to Pa Cooper’s cold has advised that he relocate to a climate free of extreme winters if he expects to continue enjoying good health.  As for Lucy—George and Anita are making plans to move her into a retirement home (exclusively for women)…and before George can spring this news on her Lucy informs him (she’s found out about their plans) that she would love to move in there to spare him the embarrassment of having to tell her what he and Anita have decided.  On the day of Barkley’s scheduled train trip to California, he and Lucy are able to spend remaining moments together in New York (Lucy has extracted a promise from George not to tell Barkley where she’ll be) even when they’re expected for dinner with their children.  In fact, the couple is having so much fun that Barkley phones Nellie to let her know not to expect their arrival, which puts her somewhat out of sorts.  Saying their goodbyes at the train station, Barkley promises that he’ll send for Lucy as soon as he lands a job and can provide a home for her.  By this time, the audience knows that’s not likely to happen…and in their final moments of being together, both husband and wife reaffirm that their life together has been by-and-large a great one, one that they’d venture into again without hesitation.

Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore

Director Leo McCarey was flat on his back in recuperative mode as a result of becoming sick while making the 1936 Harold Lloyd comedy The Milky Way—he and several other members of the cast and crew were sidelined because the milk they drank on that picture wasn’t pasteurized.  As a result, McCarey was unable to attend his father’s funeral, and he felt that making a movie inspired by his father would be a most fitting tribute.  The inspiration came from a play co-authored by Helen and Nolan Leary, who had in turn taken their idea from a Josephine Lawrence (a well-known columnist) novel, The Years are So Long.

Viña Delmar wrote Make Way for Tomorrow’s screenplay, but much of the movie was also improvised by the cast with the approval of McCarey, a practice that the director often utilized since the days he wrote, directed and/or supervised comedies at Hal Roach (where he worked on some of the classic shorts starring Charley Chase, Max Davidson and Laurel & Hardy).  In the lead roles of Ma and Pa Cooper he cast Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi…and while Moore, a veteran vaudeville comedian, could pass muster as the septuagenarian Barkley (Moore was 61) Bondi was going to require the assistance of Wally Westmore’s makeup talents (she was 49—one year younger than actress Risdon, who played her daughter Cora).

Bondi and Thomas Mitchell

It wasn’t really too much of a chore for Beulah to convince audiences in her role as Ma Cooper; she was Hollywood’s go-to gal when it came to casting saintly mothers, and in fact she played matriarch to Jimmy Stewart in four feature films: Of Human Hearts (1938), Vivacious Lady (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and most famously, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).  (Bondi is so convincing, as a matter of fact, that I didn’t even stop to think until after the movie that she’s Thomas Mitchell’s mom in Tomorrow…and his sister-in-law in IAWL!)  Though she received two Academy Award nominations in her career (one for Hearts and the other for 1936’s The Gorgeous Hussy), her pursuit of an Oscar would result in disappointment.  Personally, I think Tomorrow is her finest moment onscreen, and remain flabbergasted that the film received zero nominations, which just goes to prove that in hindsight the Academy rarely gets it right.

I know Victor Moore primarily for his radio work—he was a semi-regular on Jimmy Durante’s show in the 1947-48 season, and made a marvelous foil for the Schnozzola.  McCarey knew of Moore’s extensive comedic background and made a fine choice in selecting Moore for the part of Barkley Cooper, reasoning that someone who could do comedy could do anything (“Dying is easy…comedy is hard”).  Since Tomorrow does have its occasional lighter moments, Moore’s portrayal of “Bark” proves quite effective.  What I find so marvelous about Tomorrow is that the film boasts no big-time star wattage; most of the parts are played by reliable character actors, notably Thomas Mitchell as an all-too human being who nevertheless makes poor decisions in his life.  The scene in which he and Bondi decide that the women’s home will be the best venue for her is a real heart-ripper, and the topper is when he returns to the bedroom where his wife Anita sits in front of a vanity mirror: “As the years go by, you can always look back on this day and be mighty proud of me,” is his moving lament.

Mitchell and Bainter

The explanation for Make Way for Tomorrow’s poor b.o. isn’t too hard to figure out—it’s a very depressing film (Orson Welles once remarked to acolyte Peter Bogdanovich that Tomorrow “would make a stone cry”), something audiences definitely weren’t flocking to during the period known as the Depression.  In fact, Zukor begged McCarey to make the ending more upbeat…and when Leo refused, that’s when he got his walking papers from Paramount.  Because Tomorrow doesn’t take the easy way out, the film has been cited by many critics as having the feel of a foreign film.  (Many years later, famed Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu and his screenwriter Kogo Noda used the movie as the inspiration for the 1953 classic Tokyo Story.)

I only had the fundage to purchase one DVD from’s recent Criterion sale, and after agonizing long and hard over whether to go with Make Way for Tomorrow or Island of Lost Souls (1933), I decided to go with the former.  I’d had actually seen the movie before many years ago when it was shown on AMC…though it’s interesting to point out that I probably wouldn’t have been curious about the film were it not for the recommendation of one of my best friends from high school, who raved about the movie.  It’s also not hard to see why it was a favorite of McCarey’s; despite his conservatism he was at heart a humanist, and many of his movies (Ruggles of Red GapGoing My Way) are a deft blend of heart-warming humor and drama.  My two favorite moments in the picture begin when Barkley pays his friend Rubens a visit and asks Max to read to him one of Lucy’s letters because he’s broken his reading glasses.  Max is so overwhelmed by the content of the missive that after Barkley leaves, he calls out to his wife, who is in the back of the store (in the quarters where they live)…and when she asks what he wants, he replies that he just wanted to see her…and make sure she was there.

Lucy and Barkley Cooper (Beulah Bondi, Victor Moore), in happier times.

The other poignant sequence finds Bark and Lucy out strolling the streets of the Big Apple…and Barkley excuses himself to go into a shoe store for a brief moment.  We can see a sign reading “Man Wanted” in the window, and we instinctively know his reason for going in…and when he emerges jobless he dismisses the experience with “They didn’t have anything in my size anyway.”  This film is filled with so many beautiful (and truthful) moments it’s hard to know where to begin; even though McCarey is pretty even handed in not tarring the Cooper children with the brush of villainy, it’s hard not to pass judgment when son Robert pipes up (as they all wait for their parents to arrive for dinner): “We’ve known all along that we’re probably the most good-for-nothing bunch of kids that were ever raised…but it didn’t bother us much until we found out Pop knew it, too.”

I contemplated as to whether or not I should have picked this particular film as an “Overlooked Film” entry for today seeing as how Make Way for Tomorrow is finally getting some long overdue props.  It has, as I mentioned, been released to DVD and has also turned up on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ once or twice; furthermore, the film was selected for the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2010.  So the next time you get the opportunity to cash in on a Criterion sale and you’re longingly looking up and down the lists of available discs to purchase…you could do no worse than popping Tomorrow in your shopping cart.  Included on the re-mastered disc is Tomorrow, Yesterday, and Today, a featurette with Peter B…who despite his status as “the Dick Cavett of film directors” gives a nice overview of McCarey’s career and Tomorrow in particular.  (A second extra features author/critic Gary Giddins, who also has some cogent things to say about this extraordinary film.)

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