Ever think of what it will be like for you when you turn 70, 75, or 80? I have. It’s sort of sketchy for me, but I have an idea of the ideal life I’d love to have at that age. “Make Way for Tomorrow,” (37) tells a story of an aging couple. Leo McCarey directed this unsung gem, and although he didn’t win an Oscar for this film, he felt it was his best film. The film done during the Great Depression will resonate especially during these hard economic times. The couple, Barkley and Lucy Cooper are played by Victor Moore, and Beulah Bondi respectively.
Lucy and Barkley are in their 70’s, it’s hard to believe that because they appear older, tired, and worn, compared to the healthier, and in many cases wealthier 70 year old citizens we have today. Their hard life is written all over. The wrinkles were many, their hobbled walk a testament to the hardships they’ve endured. Barkley worked hard on building a business most of his life, but didn’t succeed. In spite of their hardships they loved each other deeply and had five children to prove it. They made due, they managed. Enter the Great Depression, and the couple are in their 70’s, and broke. All they have is their home, the home they raised their five children in. But even that they can’t keep. The bank forecloses on their home, and the Coopers are basically homeless and broke. But not to worry, they have five children and one will at the very least help.
The Coopers gather four of their middle-aged children to inform them of the problem. Their fifth child lives in California and wasn’t present at this “family” meeting. When the children are told, they are shocked, and concerned. The concern wasn’t so much about how to help their parents, it was more like, who the hell is going to take responsibility? They all put up all kinds of excuses. One daughter, Nell is the only one who can take them both in, but must first speak to her insolent husband. Nell knows her husband will not do it, but plays it off like she’ll try. They finally decide to split the couple up until Nell can take them both in. Lucy goes to live with her son and his family. And Barkley goes to live with his reluctant, icy daughter. The couple is now 300 miles apart!
We must understand that it is the depression and everyone including the Cooper children are struggling to make ends meet. They have their share of stresses. But I still can’t wrap my head around the treatment of their parents. The two burdened families soon come to find the respective parents’ presence bothersome. Nell does very little to convince her husband of having the elderly couple come live together with them. We all know Nell really doesn’t want to deal with pesky parents. Although this is all happening around these two elderly people, they hang on to believing that one day they will live together, and independently again. It was easier to believe that fantasy than face facts. In a touching scene, Lucy continues to speak of the day that her husband will find work, her teenage granddaughter bluntly advises her to “face facts” that that will never happen because of his age. Lucy’s sad reply is to say that “facing facts” is easy for a carefree 17-year old girl, but that at Lucy’s age, the only fun left is “pretending that their ain’t any facts to face, so would you mind if I just kind of went on pretending?”
The families can’t take it anymore, and decide to send the elderly Barkley Cooper to California, even farther away from his Lucy. And they decide to send their mother, Lucy to a nursing home. But before the two split, and quite possibly for good, they spend a glorious afternoon together. They reminiscence of better times when they were young, they even go to the hotel they spent their honeymoon in, and for the first time Lucy has a drink publicly. The people they encounter on this afternoon, although strangers, seem to find them a amiable couple. They genuinely enjoy their company, treat them wonderfully. This, of course, stands in stark contrast to the treatment they are receiving from their children.
Lucy and Barkley head out to the train station, where Barkley will board a train to California. They say their good-byes. Barkley still speaks of possibly finding a job, and Lucy assures him he will. Again, the couple preferring to pretend, rather than face the facts. It’s the only way to cope. But we all know, it’s their final moment.
This was my first time seeing this gem. I have to agree with it’s director, it’s his best. Although the movie is sad, so sad that Orson Welles said, it’d make “a stone cry,” it has a strong message, mostly about honoring our parents. We can all see the problems of caring for our aging parents quite clearly, but easily forget the sacrifices they’ve made for us. If they can’t count on us, who can they count on? There is subtle humor in the movie. You’ll love the strong love affair the elderly couple have even after 50 years! The last 20 minutes of the movie are unbearably touching. You will never forget the last shot of Bondi as she watches the train take her prince away. You can’t help notice the New York shots of skyscrapers, and fast moving motor cars, as if saying, in with the new and out with old. It’s an unforgettable film, and one that will make you call your mother, and cherish your parents always.