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Now on DVD: “Make Way for Tomorrow” (Leo McCarey, 1937)

Above: Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi in Leo McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow.  Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

I've spent so much time in and on Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story that I was fairly certain I already knew the film on which it was based, the long unattainable and finally released on DVD 1937 Leo McCarey picture Make Way for Tomorrow.  Both films tell of aged parents who try to stay with their grown-up children, only to find their offspring irritated and put-upon by the apparent burden of the elderly.  It may be trite and unuseful to compare the two, as many have done, but the much anticipated video release of McCarey's film by Criterion, shocked me out of my presumption.

Whereas Ozu's film adopts a distance through a story and tone more responsive to and at ease with the flow of the world—the parents vacation to see their children, we travel around a lot, see difference houses and cities, and the children's treatment of their parents almost seems impersonal, symptomatic of society at the time—it is hard to believe McCarey's earlier picture was produced by a studio in 1937.  Make Way for Tomorrow is much harsher, more detailed, has a more minute focus.  Fault, a nebulous judgment in Ozu's avoidance of psychology, rears its head in the American version.  The parents' house is seized by the bank due to the father's continued unemployment, and he neglects to tell his children of his financial woes.  When the father and mother end up leaving their house and separately staying with their barely tolerating children, the parents are far from the self-effacing couple in Tokyo Story, and display an irritability at their separation and a small, but crucial cluelessness about their presence in their children's cramped lives that would frustrate the most kind-hearted host.

What it comes down to is that Viña Delmar's screenplay, but most especially McCarey's direction, evens out this relentlessly sentimental film—which from the very first scene lays heavy the sadness surrounding the life of the parents and then proceeds, simply, straightforwardly, and without any of Hollywood's rabid desire for story or a narrative's goals, to dramatize various exemplary scenarios of sadness—by fearlessly showing the limpness of the mother and father's character going hand-in-hand with their love.  It is a far more uncomfortable movie to watch than Ozu's for this very reason, that for all the sadness over the parents' mistreatment, we can plainly see in small domestic scenes hints of how this fate was determined.

McCarey, who Dan Sallitt has astutely noted prefers to stage his scenes with an audience watching, gives Make Way for Tomorrow's audience an analog in one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the picture, one which holds a continued emotional note for a terrible and terribly impressive length of time.  In it we see the mother's total unawareness of and indifference to the household affairs of her daughter-in-law as she makes a long distance call to her husband in the middle of the daughter's bridge lesson.  The work of the dozen or so of the class's pupils is paused as they are forced to witness the wrenchingly moving slow-motion syrup of the mother's one-sided conversation of love and longing.  Like that bridge class—which notably does not look on in annoyance or impatience—the film's audience is also held in limbo between a kind of heart-melted awe at the boundless love of this elderly couple and a polite irritation that the world of the couple has shrunken to involve just themselves and no others.

Within this paean to life-long coupledom and love and against the mistreatment by the young—the former being far more important even though the latter is constantly critically pointed to as the film's subject—is this bitter, realistic note: the refuge within the mother and father's boundless love for one another is perhaps one reason why the father has gone unemployed and went broke without telling anyone, and that his children have been raised to be shiftless or weak. Because unlike the Ozu film, in Make Way for Tomorrow we are able to read psychology into these characters, and see the softness of affection translating, in the past, to a sloppy and permissive upbringing which probably has determined the parents' treatment by their own children.  The film is all the harsher—and richer—for keeping to bumpy, claustrophobic interiors, making the parents heartfelt but ingratiating, and their children's indifference or cruelty a result of what we simultaneously find so touching.

I was shocked the first time I saw Make Way for Tomorrow. It wasn’t just that the movie itself was so devastating; it was that I felt that everything I knew about film history suddenly seemed questionable. It was amazing to me that this movie, which seemed virtually unknown even to many rabid cinephiles at the time, was very possibly, as you suggest, a better film than Ozu’s remake, which the last Sight & Sound poll listed as the 5th greatest film ever made (and don’t get me wrong — I idolize Ozu (of course)). There are certain moments in history when a particular film becomes canonized — a beautiful moment, indeed — but that very canonization forces a dozen other movies to die. And history has a way of tightening up around these canonized films like a scab over a wound — thus, the popular consensus still holds that Bicycle Thieves is more important than Umberto D, that Rashomon is better than High and Low, and that we have room in the communal imagination for Satyajit Ray but not for Ritwik Ghatak. It’s fun, though, to imagine an alternate universe where the McCarey film is one of the most famous movies ever made and Ozu is still as obscure as Naruse or Shimizu. —Doug D
Hi Doug, I had the same thought — and it really makes you wonder if cinema is totally like this and always be. That is, there is always something else lurking in inaccessibility that “trumps” or precedes/anticipates something that has settled in as canonical. It is both exciting to consider and also dangerous. The danger lies in critics who tend to over-emphasize the judgment side of argument, condemning a canonical film because it is canonical, rather than simply revealing the lesser known title.
I’m awfully glad I’ll never have to choose, as it were, between the Ozu and the McCarey. I believe they are equally great films in different keys.
Interesting piece on a wonderful film which I had read about for many years before managing to see. As others have pointed out, some in the bridge class look a little anxious when looking at Lucy as she sits among them, probably anticipating what the future might have in store for THEM when they grow old. And I think you are being a bit hard on the old couple during their phone call – they were probably a little hard of hearing and technology then not being what it is today, the long-distance connection was likely not the best. It was only a few minutes and meant a lot to both. Raising several kids costs money, and for a one-income (presumably) family it wouldn’t be hard to see where a lot of their cash went (and not unreasonable to expect some help now, perhaps?). As you say, the parents were quite possibly sloppy, permissive and absorbed with each other. but there is no mistaking where the filmmakers’ sympathies’ lie: “Honor thy mother and thy father” front and centre (literally!) And maybe they weren’t so bad: even good parents can have rotten kids – there is always an element of luck in how offspring turn out (no, I am not a parent). The old couple’s delay in telling their kids of their troubles might have stemmed from the secret knowledge that they wouldn’t be much help. Given how most of their kids and inlaws regard them, it’s not that surprising they retreat to each other: only the son played by Thomas Mitchell seems to have any kind of filial regard for his folks or the faintest scruples about dumping her in an old folks’ home. Is it any wonder he was the mother’s favourite? Ron Cerabona

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