There is a sequence in the Depression-era film Make Way for Tomorrow, about an elderly couple forced to live apart after losing their house, that could (to borrow Orson Welles' famous phrasing) make a stone sob. * Barkley "Bark" Cooper has broken his glasses and can't read the latest letter from his wife, Lucy, so he visits his friend Max and asks him to read the letter aloud. Lucy has written that she misses Bark terribly, though she hates to sound weak. She writes that their daughter Nellie might not be able to take them in as they'd hoped. She writes that she visited a ghastly old-age home, which Nellie kept saying was very nice. She writes, "I love you so that—"
Max can't bring himself to read any further, and Bark leaves without a word. Max calls to another room for his own wife, who doesn't answer. He calls again for her, suddenly panicked. She finally hurries in, harried and perplexed. "I just wanted to look at you," Max explains. "I wanted to make sure you were here."
Directed by Leo McCarey, Make Way for Tomorrow is a profoundly sad film, but it's so subtly wrought and generous of spirit that its sadness is transfigured into a kind of exhilaration. Contemporary viewers might feel an affinity between the film's heart-swelling sorrows and those of Pixar's Up, another movie about being old and inconvenient and losing your house and missing your wife. But in Up, the kernel of grief at the center of a long and happy marriage is a lack of children. In Make Way for Tomorrow, the children themselves are the grief. The Coopers have five, but none will share their home with both parents at once—not because they are "bad" kids or are settling any old scores with Ma and Pa but because, to borrow the maxim of another humanist masterpiece of the late 1930s, Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game, "Everyone has their reasons."
According to Renoir, "Leo McCarey understood people better than any other Hollywood director," and nowhere was McCarey's grasp of capaciously contradictory human nature more apparent than in Make Way for Tomorrow. Yet the filmmaker has never achieved the name-brand stature of contemporaries such as Howard Hawks and Frank Capra: His eclectic career (ranging from Laurel and Hardy shorts to Marx Brothers shenanigans to the Bing Crosby juggernauts Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary's) and his erratic later output (the Red Scare agitprop My Son John) made him hard to categorize and thus harder to canonize. And although Make Way is McCarey's greatest film, its wizened protagonists, melancholy view of the American family, and devastating ending made it a difficult sell. Now out on a beautiful Criterion disc, the film has been largely overlooked in the seven-plus decades since its release in 1937, the same year when Social Security payouts began and McCarey took home the best-directing Oscar for the screwball gem The Awful Truth—though he quipped that he'd won for the wrong picture.
Part of the genius of Make Way for Tomorrow is that its characters contain multitudes: The viewer's sympathies shift and recalibrate themselves too often and quickly for any firm judgments to take hold about the Coopers' less-than-accommodating children or, for that matter, the elder Coopers themselves. You can be outraged on the homeless couple's behalf yet still cringe at their behavior: Bark can be a charming gentleman and an impossible coot, Lucy a sweet old lady and a passive-aggressive busybody. Likewise, you can lament their children's lack of selflessness and still wonder whether you'd do better in their place. Lucy's tenancy with son George (Thomas Mitchell) and his wife, Anita (Fay Bainter), becomes an embarrassed turf war between two enormously decent women in which petty-seeming squabbles about laundry, bridge classes, and the contours of George's psyche express deeper anxieties that life as they know it has slipped from their control. (When Anita begs her teenage daughter to get Lucy out of the house for a few hours—"If you love me, if I've ever done anything for you that you've appreciated, even a little bit, for heaven's sake take your grandmother with you"—the irony of her appeal to filial piety is wincingly funny.)
Two-thirds a wrenching family drama, Make Way for Tomorrow takes an extraordinary turn in its last act, becoming a sweet odyssey of wish fulfillment. Reunited in Manhattan for just five precious hours before Bark catches a train to join another daughter in California, husband and wife become—in their own quiet, modest way—footloose and fancy-free. They drink and dance at the swanky hotel where they spent their honeymoon 50 years ago and skip out on the valedictory dinner their guilty children have planned for them. They flirt and laugh and talk over each other and practice tongue-twisters, and the entire city seems to lay out a red carpet for these slightly stooped VIPs: A car salesman becomes their chauffeur, the hotel manager pays their bill, the bandleader plays them a waltz. It's as if the movie suddenly became self-aware and decided to revel in its own movie-ness by granting the hard-luck Coopers the date of their dreams. Lucy even senses her role as fortune-favored star of the screen: Leaning in for her husband's kiss, she stops short, looks back at the camera, furrows her brow, and withdraws from his embrace—a strange and fascinating little tap on the fourth wall.
Beulah Bondi was not yet 50 when she played the seventysomething Lucy in Make Way for Tomorrow, and her performance is the soul of the film. The actress' quavering voice and halting gait convincingly add decades to her age, but Bondi also had a Streep-like gift for the filigree of the perfect gesture: Watch Lucy's hand flutter up shyly to her lace collar when Bark compliments her looks or her fingers worrying her purse straps during the couple's achingly restrained last goodbye. Lucy stands at the center of one of the most shattering endings in American cinema, watching helplessly as the train speeds her husband away: She just wants to look at him, and when he's out of sight, she doesn't know where to look, and so the movie looks away.
Correction, March 5, 2010: The article originally stated that McCarey's film "could make a stone sob" without identifying that the original author of that observation was Orson Welles. (Return to the revised sentence.)