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Make Way for Tomorrow

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 26, 2015

Or, in the words of a 1911 D.W. Griffith film, what shall we do with our old? This is exhibit A for the notion that director Leo McCarey was Hollywood’s answer to Jean Renoir. Some of the daughters here don’t come off so well, but the fact is that everyone in this scenario really does have his or her reasons. What’s great, and what’s so very forceful, is that the sympathy that this fact engenders doesn’t at all diminish the criticism that follows. Sympathy for wrongdoers doesn’t eliminate the fact that they’ve done wrong. And for all of its gentleness, maybe because of its gentleness, Make Way for Tomorrow is ultimately a film that howls on the heath. In a certain sense it is about Goneril and Regan, and the fact that in industrial modernity Goneril and Regan will generally get away with it.

Craft! You can’t just dismiss Hollywood, can you? The pacing of this commercial film is quite courageous, and quite remarkable when you compare it to a lot of contemporary texts (i.e. The Awful Truth, also McCarey, also 1937). It is positively geriatric, taking its time to the point of near excess. This is utterly intentional, of course. The glacial pace hints at the maddening intransigence and obliviousness of the elderly. Or, it contains the tremulous attendance of the pilgrim on the brink of crossing over. As viewers we are invited to consider which of these two interpretive options is to take precedence. And while we’re thinking about it we get lots of good comedy, lots of good critical satire up to the point of our elderly protagonists’ last afternoon together. You know, just in case our grand/parents are also getting on our nerves.

Then it all gets shattering. Notice those four acts of conspicuous kindness—the salesman that takes his foot off of the gas, the check girl that smiles and says she’ll remember, the manager who knows when to forego the pursuit of profit, the bandleader who is mindful of the greater need of less significant patrons. They are extraordinarily moving! These old folks have not been anywhere, and they’ve not done much. Their recollections are nevertheless as poignant and profound as the most celebrated and momentous. Here are the sparrows, falling.