Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow is one of the great unsung Hollywood masterpieces, an enormously moving Depression-era depiction of the frustrations of family, aging, and the generation gap. Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi headline a cast of incomparable character actors, starring as an elderly couple who must move in with their grown children after the bank takes their home, yet end up separated and subject to their offspring’s selfish whims. An inspiration for Ozu’s Tokyo Story, Make Way for Tomorrow is among American cinema’s purest tearjerkers, all the way to its unflinching ending, which McCarey refused to change despite studio pressure.
Stills from Make Way for Tomorrow
How, you may wonder, have you never heard of Leo McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow, a film garlanded with the following raves from major critics: "There are few American films as subtle, moving and bursting with human truth" (Dave Kehr), "Beautiful and heartbreaking" (Roger Ebert), "Hollywood movies don't get much better than this" (Jonathan Rosenbaum)? The film's low profile in film history probably has a variety of causes: it flopped on its initial release, it lacks recognizable stars that might bring it residual interest, and its director, though an Oscar winner in his time, did not sustain his post-career reputation the way his contemporary and friend Frank Capra did. With the Criterion Collection's 2010 DVD release, this 1937 picture may finally assume its place of honor in the movie imagination of the public at large. Set when the Depression was still a reality, the film looks at an elderly couple, played by Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi, whose savings are gone and whose house is repossessed by the bank. The only feasible solution their children can find is to divide the parents up: Mom will stay with the eldest son (Thomas Mitchell) and his family in Manhattan, and Dad will bunk with a daughter in a small town 300 miles away. McCarey deals with this heartbreaking situation so plainly and directly, and yet with such on-target humor, that you almost don't notice how devastating the results are, and his work with Moore and Bondi--best known as character actors in film--is superb. The final half-hour bestows kindness on the couple but doesn't shy away from the story's only possible conclusion. Orson Welles described the movie's effect in perhaps the most succinct terms: "It could make a stone cry." See it, and discover a classic. --Robert Horton