Make Way For Tomorrow - 1937
Directed by Leo McCarey
“That’s the illest song ever!”
Pharrell Williams, on Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me”
Orson Welles didn’t say that Make Way For Tomorrow was the illest movie ever, though he came pretty close, saying of it, “Oh my god! That’s the saddest movie ever made. It would make a stone cry!”
So why am I comparing Make Way For Tomorrow with I Can`t Make You Love Me? Because when I think of Make Way For Tomorrow I can’t help but think of I Can’t Make You Love Me; the thoughts they induce in my mind magnetize and coagulate and unify, and like the sun and the moon they illuminate and gravitate towards each other. And because both works were born sad, because both flaunt their bruises while other works surgically remove them, and because both are straightforward without being brutish and blunt. And I think of Make Way For Tomorrow not so much as a movie (although it certainly is that, and a great one too) but as a dirge, a song that never ceases to be sad. Both eulogize a love that can only be remembered and never regained. Both dwell, and dwell deeply, and both are full of sentiment, but not the sugary sentiment that makes one shudder and vomit, but that sentiment’s dark and sludgy doppelganger, the medley made of grief and loss and surrender.
Before directing Make Way For Tomorrow, Leo McCarey had directed a string of comedic hits with the likes of Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, The Marx Brothers, and Harold Lloyd. The impetus to direct Make Way For Tomorrow, however, was far from comedic. The sudden death of his father led McCarey to immediately make a film that would honour his memory. Paramount, the producers of the film, presumed the film would be box office poison, and asked McCarey to add a Hollywood ending, but McCarey, being brilliant and a moneymaker to boot, completed the movie without studio interference. Though the film bombed and Paramount fired McCarey for his efforts, directors no less esteemed than Jean Renoir, Ernst Lubitsch, Frank Capra and John Ford adored it, and when McCarey won an Academy Award for The Awful Truth (made immediately after Make Way For Tomorrow), McCarey’s acceptance speech went, “Thank you for the award, but you’ve given it to me for the wrong picture.” Later in life, McCarey said of Make Way For Tomorrow, “If I really have talent, this is where it really appears.”
The movie is ostensibly about the 50 year marriage between Bark and Lucy Cooper and the slow dissolution of that marriage. Annihilated financially by the Great Depression, they are forced to give up their house. They have five children, and while they are all doing well, none of them are able to take both Bark and Lucy in, and so Bark and Lucy are forced to separate. Nobody in the film is especially bad, and there are no great schemes or terribly important plot points. There is almost a total lack of tension, which is not to say that the movie lacks drive or inevitability, oh no. Rather, Make Way For Tomorrow has the drive and inevitability of a life lived very long in real time. The movie moves simply from circumstance to circumstance, and we simply witness the love that binds Bark and Lucy, the love that despite having already existed for 50 years and the separation that now threatens them, has all the vigour and spontaneity of a freshly lit fire. And because we know that their being apart cannot be helped and that time is being unfriendly towards them, well, that’s what makes Make Way For Tomorrow the saddest movie ever made.
The first onset of sadness arises about 24 minutes into the movie. So far we have witnessed only briefly Lucy’s new life in the New York apartment of her son George, and already we see that she is as wanted as an ordinary intruder is. She returns home from a movie and interrupts a bridge class being taught by George’s wife, and then shortly she receives a long distance telephone call from Bark. She receives the call within full earshot of these bridge playing strangers, but she makes no attempt at discretion. This is the first time she has heard her husband’s voice since their separation, and she is happy to hear from the man she loves, and as far as she’s concerned the room is empty save them.
This conversation operates in only one way. All we hear is Lucy’s loud and tuneless voice, we hear nothing of what Bark says, and it is a miracle of screenwriting that we can learn so much about them both without the benefit of a two way talk: Lucy`s monologue transcends into a dialogue. And, believe it or not, another miracle takes place simultaneously: that of the performance of Beulah Bondi. Bondi performs this monologue with a minimal amount of gestures, she doesn’t fidget with the phone cord or flare her nostrils as a silent film star or as a grand hack would, instead she limits Lucy to a few tiny and thoughtful movements of her eyes, and to a fractured and unbearable tone of voice. It`s all wonder from Bondi, she makes the monologue sound like a private song composed for and played by two hands, and though these hands are cities apart, they’ve practiced together so long that no distance could possibly separate them.
Lucy begins sounding annoying and overprotective. She says to Bark, “You ought to write. You know I worry...Bark, it’s getting cool. Don’t go out without your coat. And if it rains, don’t go out at all!”
She sounds like a spate of notes struck out of tune, but as the monologue progresses she gradually acquires grace and begins to sound like a series of sad and hypnotic notes played softly and tenderly at a piano. Lucy then says, in a way so melancholic that the strangers in the room begin to seize up from such artlessness, “Oh, I’m as happy as a lark...Of course I miss you, Bark, that’s the only trouble...I know you do. Don’t forget what I told you. We’ll soon be together, for always.”
Lucy ends the conversation by saying, “It’s been good to hear your voice, Bark. It must have cost you a lot to call me...Well, that’s a lot. You could have bought yourself a good warm scarf for that. Alright, Bark...Goodbye, Bark. Goodbye, my dear.”
Bondi delivers that last “my dear” in a tone that is simply excruciating. She makes the phrase sound as if it could only end on the saddest note. And though I don’t know which note is the saddest of all, I imagine that it sounds very much like the final one.
As sad as that scene is, Make Way For Tomorrow contains even sadder ones.
In the movie’s last 25 minutes, Bark and Lucy are finally reunited. They have 5 hours together before Bark must depart on a train for California. They begin their time together with a walk in a park. They stop at a bench to have a seat, and here they have a conversation which has been 50 years in the making.
Lucy says, “I figure that everyone is entitled to just so much happiness in life. Some get it in the beginning, and some in the middle, and others at the end. And then there are those who have it spread thin all through the years.”
Victor Moore, who plays Bark, is also remarkable in this movie. Before acting in Make Way For Tomorrow he acted in comedies and was trained as a vaudevillian. Playing against type, he helps prove the old showbiz adage that if you can play comedy, you can play anything. Bark replies to Lucy with the words that I find to be the saddest in the entire movie: “The trouble is I was a failure. I suppose you liked me because I knew a couple of jokes and could make you laugh. I was a town clown. But there wasn’t much in the business world, Lucy, for that kind of a fella.”
These are the types of thoughts reserved only for broken men. These are thoughts that are too painful to think and nearly impossible to say, even if just to yourself and under your breath. Because to think thoughts like these is to risk imploding the edifice upon which you’ve built your entire life, and that even to consider the threat of these thoughts is only to confirm the hunch that you’re not the man you set out to be at all. And to consider that you’ve failed is to consider what good you’ve been at all to anybody, and what good could you ever possibly be. And once this has happened, it’s all sad minutes, sad hours, and sad years. At what point in his life did Bark begin thinking this?
Bark says this not because he has courage, but because it’s something outside of himself. It seems as though he is making a statement about his life, but in truth he’s really asking a question of Lucy, a question he’s not qualified to answer himself. He’s asking her, “What have I been good for?” And it’s a question only Lucy is qualified to answer because she’s the only person he trusts more than himself, because any other answer aside from the correct one would mean defeat.
Lucy replies, “I won’t let you call yourself a failure, Bark.”
And for Bark, this is it. She has justified his reason for living. Because for those words alone has he stayed alive, and because of those words alone he may live just a while longer. And what’s more fantastic about Lucy’s answer is that she’s known it for years, she’s just been waiting for Bark to ask the question. It’s a wonderful conversation, and one in which they subtly renew their vows. Without this exchange, Bark would not be able to later joke to a maître d’hôtel, “Best thing I ever did was marrying her. Randy Dunlap was courting her at the same time I was. I guess I looked like the best bet since she took me. Randy Dunlap is a banker in our town. I’ve got his girl but he’s got my house.”
The final scene of the movie is justifiably honoured, as it ends with some of the loveliest parting lines ever spoken and written. In these lines I find encompassed all that I wish great art would do. It’s inconceivable that these last lines could have been spoken at all in that way, with so much finality, in such a perfect setting, with that much tenderness, by two real people without a script (even the phrase “I do” is carefully scripted so people don’t screw it up). Great art helps you say what you’re too incompetent or too witless or too afraid to say in real life.
Think of Pablo Neruda’s marvellous book The Captain’s Verses. The best line in that book is not “I love you” but the other all-embracing lines which rapturously surround it. A maggot could probably scrawl “I love you” inside the grey carcass of a nightingale, but it takes real art to say what’s obvious without being so obvious. Thus Neruda writes: “And so you see, my love,/how I move/around the island,/around the world,/safe in the midst of spring,/crazy with light in the cold,/walking tranquil in the fire,/lifting your petal/weight in my arms/as if I had never walked/except with you, my heart,/as if I could not walk/except with you,/as if I could not sing/except when you sing.”
Undoubtedly, saying, “I love you,” is heavy and loaded, but as far as proof goes, it is still subject to reasonable doubt. So Make Way For Tomorrow ends with these lines:
“In case I don’t see you again...well, anything might happen...the train could jump off the track. If it should happen that I don’t see you again, it’s been very nice knowing you, Miss Breckenridge.”
“That’s probably the prettiest speech you’ve ever made. And in case I don’t see you...well...for a little while...I just want to tell you. It’s been lovely, every bit of it, the whole 50 years. I’d sooner have been your wife, Bark, than anyone else on earth.”
“Thank you, Lucy.”
How could you possibly doubt lines as lovingly written as those? Make Way For Tomorrow is the illest movie ever.