The story followed an elderly couple (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi) cast out of their home by a foreclosure. They seek aid from their grown children (among them Thomas Mitchell and Elisabeth Risdon), who reluctantly put them up. The old folks find the children and their spouses to be petty and irritable, accidentally cruel but intentionally indifferent. Moore and Bondi must be separated if both are to be accommodated within the children’s limited means. Only fifty years of memories and the possibility of a long distance telephone call binds them together—though not without the awareness that the money used for the phone call might be better spent on a winter scarf.
Four years earlier John Ford’s Pilgrimage (a brilliantly modulated series of genre-bridging sketches that still awaits rediscovery) had been a box office success. Like Make Way for Tomorrow, Pilgrimage revolved around generational conflict and relied upon the performance of a homely, elderly woman (Henrietta Crosman) for its pathos. Crosman, a theater veteran, played a crotchety and despondent kind of heroine—not in the least the bubbly, romantic lead that audiences had rightly come to expect from the Dream Factory. The anti-glamour gamble paid off in 1933 but failed in 1937.
Admittedly, the two pictures are quite different in other respects. Pilgrimage explicitly pitches carnal desire against conservative mores: Crosman, who’d rather send her son to die in the Great War than see him carouse with a local hussy, begins as a representative of the old values but gradually evolves to a more tolerant and sympathetic position. The story of her pilgrimage to her son’s grave in France follows an uplifting narrative arc that emphasizes personal growth and enlightenment. Maternal love may sometimes take a stubborn form, but it comes around. No such optimism (or, if you like, pandering) marks Make Way for Tomorrow. Here the generational divide stems from nothing much—social engagements that lay the trap for minor embarrassments, suspicions towards a doctor who looks too young or a shopkeeper who sounds too eager, routine gossip and well-intentioned promises, unfashionable frugality that supersedes middle-class hierarchy and manners. It is a collection of misdemeanors and misunderstandings, the stuff that makes for undramatic conflicts and speaks more for a common strain of human frailty than it does for a fiery breach of moral values, whether old-fashioned or new-fangled. The drama is also undercut by a lack of rousing catharsis. Because, at their base, the conflicts in the story emerge from trifling squabbles there is little of substance to overcome and few lessons to be learned. The film begins with a famous creed but were all the problems really reducible to the children neglecting to Honor Thy Mother and Thy Father the power of the piece would be much reduced.
Make Way for Tomorrow is a Depression picture that flails here and there at the socioeconomic tribulations of the times but ultimately treats them softly. The progressive film historian Lewis Jacobs, writing in 1939, believed that the film ‘dramatized the necessity for an old-age security system.’ That’s a reasonable conclusion to draw from the film’s effect and its outline but not from its realization. ‘Had this picture been called Why?,’ speculated Jacobs, ‘it would have been denounced as blatant propaganda.’ But the film is not called Why? and its pathos are not a matter of prescription. Safety nets don’t solve the interpersonal void at the heart of this film. This is no fable and no agitprop, but instead a melancholy observation about the emotional violence that springs from the best intentions of fallible human beings.
NORIKO: But children do drift away from their parents. A woman has her own life, apart from her parents when she becomes Shige’s age. So she meant no harm, I’m sure. They have to look after their own lives.
KYOKO: I wonder. I won’t ever be like that. Then what’s the point of being family?
NORIKO: It is… But children become like that gradually.
KYOKO: Then—you, too?
NORIKO: Yes. I may become like that, in spite of myself.
KYOKO: Isn’t life disappointing?
NORIKO: Yes, it is.
And yet, next to Tokyo Story, Make Way for Tomorrow seems crude at first. McCarey lacks Ozu’s unique ability to situate his characters in a rigorously delineated space. The film lacks the texture of Tokyo Story—the sense of a lifestyle reflected in the choice of wallpaper patterns, flower arrangements, umbrella cans, coat racks, and the like. In Make Way for Tomorrow, the walls are often barren and white and the compositions less complex on the whole. As storytelling, Ozu’s technique looks more deliberatively and thoughtfully elliptical than McCarey’s approach. Ozu forgoes conventional exposition and instead lets his audience arrive at the characters’ relationships and temperaments through conjecture and observation. In contrast, the abrupt elisions in McCarey’s narrative—such as the details of the scandal of the granddaughter’s late night trysts, precipitated in part by the Bondi’s presence—feel less organic and more like compromises with the Production Code. That is, the style of the film comes from regimented industrial practice more than it does the personal sensibility hypothetically exemplified by Ozu’s pictures.
The goal of the forgoing discussion was to ground Make Way for Tomorrow in what it lacks—glamour, uplift, fashionable themes, neat social directives, rigorous staging, personal technique—so as to better understand its considerable and unique assets. To say that the film is moving—and it is, supremely so, moreso than Pilgrimage and a whole host of other very fine melodramas, even perhaps Tokyo Story—explains some of its appeal but by no means all.
At other points, though, the performances are jubilant. It is the old folks who come off as child-like, winking at each other behind their children’s backs and expressing distasteful reactions through irreverent gestures. And Moore’s shopkeeper friend, played expertly by Maurice Moscovitch, dispenses his grim pronouncements about family life from on high with all the aplomb of an unshakable cynic on the Yiddish vaudeville circuit. This multiplicity of emotional registers here accounts for a large part of the film’s greatness, allowing each transition from play to profundity to feel all the more unaccountable.
By and large the strategy of Make Way for Tomorrow is to profit from the parts left out and consequently build its effects from sudden realizations. We know from the beginning that Moore and Bondi have been married for fifty years but it takes considerable screen time for the weight of this passage of time to emerge. There are no flashbacks in Make Way for Tomorrow and few concrete reminiscences about the past. When the couple does try to talk about their honeymoon, they find themselves arguing about the details—and it’s never clear whether the illegibility of the past has to do with the enfeeblement of aging or with personalities prone to gentle stubbornness from the start. Make Way for Tomorrow takes considerable advantage of the medium’s present-tense mode: there is no slippery ambiguity, as there would be in literary fiction, between a simple verbal description of a thing past and an absorbing reverie of it. No, here there is talk of the past but it is always just a murmur and a groping towards something, as we are reminded with every frame, not present. In a novel, words conjure up the past until it seems as vivid as the narrative exposition of the present, itself also a jumble of words; in this film we are always reminded that words can remain only that.
Without many topical references, it takes some time before we come to realize, evident as it should be, that the past the couple shares reaches back into the nineteenth century. Only when they begin to stroll through a rear-projection simulation of Central Park do we come to consider exactly what that past looked like and meant: theirs is not the New York of trendy Park Avenue and ritzy Broadway but New York as captured in the photographs of Alfred Stieglitz and Jacob Riis. That world has vanished without a trace and without any allusions to hint at its character. Even when they visit the Vogart, the hotel of their honeymoon, the past and all it implies lie beyond reach: after a kind clerk points to a picture of how the lobby looked fifty years before, we cut to a close-up of that picture and then track out. The conventions of the time lead us to believe that this is the cue for a flashback or a recreation of the world of the photograph, but as the camera tracks back we see Moore and Bondi just as hobbled and aged as before. There is no revelation, only distance defined anew.
The camera style of Make Way for Tomorrow is not quite as negligible as the comparison to Ozu seemed to suggest. It is difficult to recall another film of the period that so abjures the editing syntax of Hollywood filmmaking. Most, though not all, of the conversations captured by McCarey’s camera unfold in messy master shots wherein the characters glance askance and rarely meet each other’s gazes. There is a minimum of cutting back and forth when two people speak, perhaps because that rhythm on its own implies a pattern and a simple exchange of ideas that would be inappropriate in a film about the breakdown of communication and sympathy. In no other film I know do the backs of characters linger so long and so intensely in the compositions. (The much more self-conscious opening of Vivre sa vie is excepted for obvious reasons.) The style of Make Way for Tomorrow, in short, avoids flash but manages to cultivate highly complex effects from the exquisite blankness of the materials.