Until a short while ago when the invaluable Criterion Collection made it part of their series of classics, one of the hardest-to-see, most personal, least commercial and least known of quality pictures to come from the American studio system was Leo McCarey’s profoundly touching 1937 drama (with some comedy) about a loving old married couple and their thoughtless grownup children, MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (available on DVD, with a video introduction for which I was interviewed). It was among Orson Welles’ favorite films, and as he used to say, “It would make a stone cry!”
Welles went on to exclaim that he usually always hated character actor Victor Moore — “a professional Irishman” — and never especially liked character actress Beulah Bondi, but that in this extraordinary movie they were both absolutely wonderful, and he would credit director-writer McCarey (1898-1969) for their brilliant turns here.
Indeed, McCarey was famous for drawing out fresh, seemingly improvised, always surprising and unusual characterizations from his actors. The very same release year as this lovely, heartbreaking film, which, as Orson also noted, “Nobody ever saw!”, McCarey scored a huge critical and popular hit with perhaps the definitive screwball romantic comedy The Awful Truth (starring Irene Dunne at her scintillating best and Cary Grant in his first real Cary Grant performance) and the Oscars voted McCarey best director for his work on it. Accepting the award, Leo thanked the Academy members, then added, “But you gave it to me for the wrong picture.”
In the last year of his life, I asked McCarey if he still felt that way and he said Yes: “It was the saddest story I ever shot; at the same time very funny.” The merging of funny and sad, in fact, became a McCarey trademark, most popularly achieved perhaps in his 1939 Love Affair (with Charles Boyer and, again, Irene Dunne) and his own 1957 remake An Affair to Remember (with Deborah Kerr and, again, Cary Grant).
The idea for Make Way for Tomorrow sprang from McCarey’s reaction to the death of his father. “We were real good friends,” Leo told me. “I admired him so much.” The scripts for both Make Way for Tomorrow and The Awful Truth were written by McCarey with Viña Delmar, whose Cosmopolitan short story about old people first prompted the director to contact her. “Old age is a subject audiences hate,” Welles used to give as one reason why this very special, guileless, and uncompromising film was never popular. But it perfectly exemplifies the comment Jean Renoir once made about Leo: “McCarey understands people,” he said, then added, “perhaps better than anyone else in Hollywood.” See this movie with folks you care about (and have plenty of Kleenex available).