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Masters of Cinema Blu-ray # 15: Make Way For Tomorrow
on 21 June 2012
'Make Way For Tomorrow' is a film that deals with a subject that is seldom dealt with in film: becoming old and forced to depend on your children for support. Interestingly enough, Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story, one of the most critically acclaimed films of all time, uses a very similar concept to 'Make Way For Tomorrow', and Ozu himself stated that he had been heavily influenced by this film when directing Tokyo Story. However, many people have heard of 'Tokyo Story', and as I said earlier, it consistently ranks towards the top of 'Best Ever Movie' polls, but 'Make Way For Tomorrow' unaccountably seems to have become almost forgotten. Make no mistake, 'Make Way For Tomorrow' is a seriously good yet deeply depressing film. I think the biggest problem facing this film, and director Leo McCarey at the time, is that it's simply very, very un-Hollywood
By 1937, Leo McCarey was an experienced filmmaker. With hundreds of movies to his name, he'd built up a solid reputation in Hollywood, working with Laurel and Hardy amongst others, and had four years previously directed the best of all the Marx Brothers' films, Duck Soup. However, McCarey himself considered 'Make Way For Tomorrow' his favourite of all his films. When, in 1938, he won an Academy Award for directing The Awful Truth, he stated in his acceptance speech that he believed they had given it him for the wrong picture.
The film, based on the 1934 novel Years So Long (a copy of which is now nearly impossible to track down) begins innocuously enough at the pensioners Barkley and Lucy's house at Christmas. Their now middle-aged children come to see them, and it's only on repeated viewings that this can be seen as the ominous calm before the storm. Because from here on out, there's not a lot to get happy about.
In the midst of the light-hearted family joking, Barkley drops the bombshell to his children that he and his wife have no money left, are about to lose their home, and are forced to look to their children for support. Their children reluctantly agree to take on their parents, but because of the the size of their homes Barkley and Lucy are forced to separate, communicating only by letters and the occasional phone call. What McCarey handles so well throughout the film, is by giving each of the characters their own reasons for acting the way they do, even their at times dispassionate children, and to carefully refrain from criticising anyone in the film for their actions. Looking back, one could criticise Bark for not saving adequately for the future, but never in the film is this attested to, wisely leaving the audience to make their own minds up. The children are generally quite cruel to their parents, especially Cora, who looks after Bark by almost keeping him prisoner and forbids him visitors when he's ill. But even the children remain sympathetic characters, trying to make the best of a bad situation.
Beulah Blondi, playing Lucy, was at the time of filming was not yet 50, though the part required that she acted at least 15 years older. Her performance especially adds so much to the film, and her telephone conversation with Bark, played out in front of her daughter-in-laws' bridge club, is heartbreaking. Even Victor Moore (Barkley) was aged with makeup to appear closer to the required age. It's great credit to Blondi and Moore that due to the quality of their performances you never once doubt that this couple have been together for 50 years, and without that there's no way that 'Make Way For Tomorrow' could have the impact it does.
As we all know, it was very 'Hollywood' in the 30s and 40s to have a happy ending (quite understandable considering the state of the world at the time). McCarey was under intense pressure to change the ending, which was possibly even more depressing in the novel. So he did change the ending, but not to give it a happy ending, more of a crushing, devastating ending with no hint of sunlight to break through the gloom. But because of McCarey's courage, the film is all the better for it. After painting such a bleak picture for 90 minutes, to finish on a high would have been both unrealistic and undo a lot of the work put in throughout the film.
At one point Barkley is telling his friend, a Jewish shopkeeper named Ruben, about his ever growing problems, and how much he misses his wife. After Barkley has left the shop, the shopkeeper goes round the back of the store and calls his wife. He wife, busy with housework, appears and asks what he wants. "I just wanted to look at you. I just wanted to make sure you were here." smiles Ruben. After watching Make Way For Tomorrow, it's easy to echo Ruben's sentiment.
This is released by the Masters of Cinema series, and considering the age of the film, the transfer shows the film looking very good indeed, if maybe not as detailed as some similar Blu-rays of this era. This is a grainy film, though at no point does it threaten to take over the image. It's hard to imagine this looking any better than it does here. Though the Blu-ray obviously has the superior image, there is also a DVD included here which mirrors the content of the Blu-ray. The audio is a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track, and again, there are no concerns with this. There are English subtitles, and the Blu-ray is locked to Region B.
There are two interviews included as extras, one where Gary Giddins discuses the production of the film, and one with Peter Bogdanovich where he looks more at the general work of director Leo McCarey. They're both excellent supplements to the film. There's also a booklet with the usual essays, as well as an extract for the original book the film was based on.