By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 23, 2010; 12:00 AM
"Make Way for Tomorrow" is an exceptional, wrenching American film that most Americans have never heard of, let alone seen. The frank, finely acted drama from director Leo McCarey was released at what could not have been a more timely moment: 1937, when the country was trying to claw its way out of the Great Depression and immersed in ongoing debate about the recently passed Social Security Act. Of course, it's precisely that timeliness that may have worked against "Tomorrow's" box office success. At such a historically trying moment, perhaps moviegoers weren't motivated to watch what happens to an elderly couple who are forced to live apart, each with one of their burdened children, after a bank takes possession of their home.
Fortunately, the Criterion Collection recognizes both the quality of McCarey's work -- Orson Welles once said the picture "would make a stone cry" -- and the fact that this story of sacrifice and frayed family bonds has become timely once again. And that's why "Make Way for Tomorrow" finally makes its way to DVD for the first time today, courtesy of a remastered release from Criterion ($29.95) that hopefully will allow more film lovers to discover the rich, subtle rewards in a movie that, until now, was tucked away in the back of the cinema-classics closet.
One might classify "Make Way for Tomorrow" as a weeper, but that word doesn't quite suit it. Although there are some undeniably emotional moments (see Welles's previous comment about stones and crying), what's most striking about this 73-year-old film is its honesty. Few contemporary dramas backed by major studios, not to mention ones from decades ago, have the courage to portray the harsh realities of dealing with aging parents: the heavy responsibility felt by the children who take them in, as well as the blunt lack of remorse from those offspring who simply can't be bothered. "Make Way for Tomorrow" shows us everything in that swirling mix of guilt, grief and duty by way of the Cooper family, a clan that can't seem to find the room, board or will to make sure that its matriarch and patriarch live the last of their years together, under the same roof.
As critic and author Gary Giddins notes on one of the DVD extras, though, "Make Way for Tomorrow" is as much a love story as it is a study of family dynamics. Character actors Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi, perhaps best known for playing Jimmy Stewart's mother in "It's a Wonderful Life," bring so much truth and sensitivity to the still-in-love Barkley and Lucy Cooper that from the very minute she moves in with son George (Thomas Mitchell, another "Wonderful Life" star) and he with chilly daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon), you're rooting for the two of them to find a way back to one another.
According to Giddins, Adolph Zukor, the founder and then-head of Paramount Pictures, visited the "Tomorrow" set numerous times and begged McCarey to change the ending of the movie. It's probably not much of a spoiler alert to point out that the director -- who that same year won the best director Oscar for Cary Grant's "The Awful Truth," and famously accepted the award by noting that the Academy gave it to him for the wrong movie -- didn't alter a thing. As documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, who placed "Make Way for Tomorrow" at the top of his list of most important movies, noted in Newsweek: "[It's] the most depressing movie ever made, providing reassurance that everything will definitely end badly." I'm pretty sure he meant that as a compliment.
The special features on this Criterion release are worthwhile but skimpy. In addition to the interview with Giddins, we get a 20-minute conversation with filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich who, like Giddins, puts the film into historic context and tells us more about McCarey's career. (Among other films, McCarey also gave us "Duck Soup," "The Bells of St. Mary's" and "An Affair to Remember.") It's all informative and appropriately reverent. But while it's natural to crave more extras, like a broader documentary about how the film was made, or feature-length commentary from another cinema scholar, it's also important to keep some perspective. Until today, it wasn't possible to see "Make Way for Tomorrow" on DVD at all. Among the many things this film teaches us, certainly one of them is this: be thankful for every precious gift life gives you.