It's the story of Barkley and Lucy Cooper (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi), two old retired souls just coming out of the Great Depression. They invite their kids (Thomas Mitchell, Elisabeth Risdon, Minna Gombelli,and Ray Mayer) over to tell them the news: they're moving out of the family homestead. This shocks the children—why would they leave their home? Well, because they have to...the bank has foreclosed. They've made arrangements with the bank to pay what they can while Barkley maintains hope that he can still work—hard to believe at his age and at the end of the Great Depression.
Well, when will they have to move out, asks George (Mitchell), the oldest.
"Tuesday," comes Barkley's dry reply.
It's a funny moment, but also slightly horrifying. It's up to the kids to find a place for Mom and Dad and at short notice. They've been getting by, hoping for the best in a bad situation and they don't want to bother the kids who have their own lives and own complications. But that's made the inevitable a situation that has to be dealt with on the spur of the moment. The kids scramble to find a solution, but the one child who might be able to house both of the parents has a husband who needs convincing and that's going to take some time. So, everyone agrees on a short term solution—George will take Mom and another of the kids will take Dad. They're going to split them up, a couple who've been together fifty years, until such a time as they can get them back together again...at some indeterminate time down the road. And time, for them, is in increasingly short supply.
It's sad, but McCarey and his writers (Viña Delmar did the screenplay based on a play by Helen and Nolan Leary, adapted from a novel by Josephine Lawrence) have the tragedian's eyes towards the better and worse natures of human beings, finding the humor in frailties and sadness in the noble gesture.
This is what makes the movie very, very special. It's a common issue of dealing with the elders, who've lived independently and taught their kids to do the same. Now, the folks are dependents, and everyone has to adjust...and uncomfortably so. Dad is sickly and has to sleep on one daughter's couch, while looking unrealistically for employment. Mom inserts herself into the eldest's family, and George's wife finds her life and independence and social standing threatened. Lucy realizes all of this and tries to be understanding, but the family dynamic makes her stand out, a fifth wheel.
Meanwhile, the parents pine for each other, writing letters that Dad has trouble reading—he's broken his glasses—and wait for the day they can reunite and be together again. But, it's a dream until the children can get their acts together, but their own lives are tough enough. Life conspires to pull the old folks apart until they can meet again before they are separated again...maybe for forever.
It could be so treacly, but Moore and Bondi underplay, Bondi more so than Moore, letting the emotions simmer below her face and centered on the eyes, which seem perpetually downcast and slightly confused. She was only 50 when she starred in it, but make-up and her empathetic restraint make her seem much older.
"Empathetic restraint" is a good phrase for the tone of the entire film, sympathetic, but rarely sentimental in the face of poor circumstance, charming in the times of nostalgia, ironic, the other times. Life is full of irony. Grace is in how you rise above it.
Two lovely passages of writing: the first when Lucy confronts Grandma with the circumstances of her situation:
Rhoda Cooper: Why don't you face facts, Grandma?
Lucy Cooper: Oh, Rhoda!
[Pats her hand]
Lucy Cooper: When you're seventeen and the world's beautiful, facing facts is just as slick fun as dancing or going to parties, but when you're seventy... well, you don't care about dancing, you don't think about parties anymore, and about the only fun you have left is pretending that there ain't any facts to face, so would you mind if I just went on pretending?
A man and a maid stood hand in hand;
bound by a tiny wedding band.
Before them lay the uncertain years
that promised joy and, maybe tears.
"Is she afraid?"
thought the man of the maid.
"Darling," he said in a tender voice,
"Tell me. Do you regret your choice?
'We know not where the road may wind,
'or what strange byways we may find.
'Are you afraid?"
said the man to the maid.
She raised her eyes and spoke at last.
"My dear," she said, "the die is cast.
'The vows have been spoken.
The rice has been thrown.
'Into the future we'll travel alone.
'With you," said the maid,
"I'm not afraid."
Truer words were never uttered at the Academy Awards.
Make Way for Tomorrow was voted into the National Film Registry in 2010.
Make Way for Tomorrow was released in May, 1937; The Awful Truth in October, 1937.
After the latter became a big hit, the former was advertised in much the same way.