A Man and a Maid: Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

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In 1936 Leo McCarey drank some expired milk. It was part of an ill-advised publicity stunt that had the crew of the Harold Lloyd comedy The Milky Way (1936) imbibe daily amounts of dairy. One of those fateful sips incapacitated McCarey with undulant fever, after which he went to Palm Springs to get healthy. As part of his unique recovery process he visited a casino, which is where he met playwright Viña Delmar, who would go on to write the screenplays for both Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) and The Awful Truth (1937). So we have food poisoning to thank for two of McCarey’s, and thus Hollywood’s, greatest films. They are both acutely observed movies about marriage that deal with the sacrifices required to maintain that union, with Make Way taking a tragic viewpoint from that of old age, and Awful Truth a comic one from youth. It was the latter, of course, with its joyous happy ending, that won the Oscar and the accolades, while the devastating Make Way was also a critical favorite but a popular failure. But when a film is released on the Criterion Collection, it can no longer be called under-appreciated. Make Way For Tomorrow was released earlier this month on Blu-ray from Criterion, in a crisp transfer that faithfully renders the thick grain of William C. Mellor’s naturalistic photography.

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Make Way for Tomorrow was a very personal project for McCarey. While recovering from the milk-induced fever, his father passed away, and he was too ill to attend the funeral. McCarey told Peter Bogdanovich he got the idea for the film because, “I had just lost my father and we were real good friends; I admired him so much.” He settled on the Josephine Lawrence novel Years Are so Long (’34) as the basis of the story, which contained the basic outline of a group of siblings struggling to take care of their aged parents. While in Palm Springs, McCarey recalled, he went to a gambling joint, and:

there I saw a most attractive girl; I tried to start a conversation with her, and she snubbed me. Now, my wife had given me this very good Cosmopolitan story to read: it was about old folks, and because I’d just lost my father, my wife had said to read it. It was by a gal called Viña Delmar, and I called the studio and told them I’d like an appointment with her for an interview; they called back and said she’s in Palm Springs. And I said, ‘Well, run her down in Palm Springs — that’s where I am.’ So another exchange of phone calls and they said she’d be over to my hotel at such and such at time. The desk announced that “Miss Delmar is here” to see me, and you can imagine both our surprise when it turned out to be the girl I’d tried to get to know at the gambling place.

They “found a mutual wavelength” and worked together on the screenplay. Their meet-cute sounds like something out of a McCarey screwball comedy, but whatever motivated their collaboration it created uniquely complicated characters – all of them have mixed, believable motivations. The children are selfish as all children are selfish, and the parents are invasive, judgmental and crotchety. The story concerns Barkley (Victor Moore) and Lucy Cooper (Beulah Bondi), a kind-hearted, if absent-minded, old married couple whose house is slated to repossessed by the bank. They gather their five children in the hopes of coming to a long-term solution. But instead the parents are separated and passed from child-to-child like a game of filial hot potato. Lucy is ensconced with her son George (Thomas Mitchell), his wife Anita (Fay Bainter) and their daughter Rhoda (Barbara Read). A perennial fourth wheel, she ambles into Anita’s bridge lessons and interrupts Rhoda’s dates. She feels unwanted, while her son feels under siege.

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Barkley is living with his daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon) and her family. Cora is an overworked housewife who grows to resent the added burden of her father’s presence, treating him more like a tenant than a personal guest. There are idle plans to reunite Bark and Lucy, but the children can never come to an agreement, and the film ends with one final separation, but not before a dreamlike revivification of their love, a sequence of miraculous power that affirms their bond just before it is severed for good.

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McCarey had little support at Paramount to film such a grim tale. He could only make the picture by tearing up his contract and working at a flat rate. Publicity was hard to come by because, according to a 1936 New York Times article, “the 250 correspondents and fan-magazine writers…shunned the sets during filming” due to a lack of star power. Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore didn’t move tabloids, but they give remarkable performances of a couple that live through and for each other. McCarey was a master of reaction shots since the slapstick days, from Charley Chase through Laurel & Hardy, and he could use the same technique for drama. Bondi and Moore’s looks are not deadpan reactions at a world collapsing around them, like Chase, but ones that build a life, moment to moment.

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Then there were poorly received test screenings. Again in the Times:

When the picture was completed it was taken 500 miles to Oakland for a sneak preview. There McCarey found he had been too faithful, that he had invested his story with too much reality. He had presented the problems without a suggestion of veneer and the audience resented it. “The children of the film reacted to situations just as the majority of children react, but the public isn’t ready for an excess of honesty yet.

He reshot entire scenes and “lightened the whole materially.” It is hard to conceive that Make Way for Tomorrow could be any more honest than it is now, but there is one scene of the children admitting their guilt that could be a sop to the masses. As their parents are taking one last cab ride together before their separation, the film awkwardly cuts to a nondescript living room, where daughter Nellie says, “If we don’t go to the station they’ll think we’re terrible.” George responds, “Aren’t we?”

Before Bark catches a train to California for a rest cure recommended by his doctor, and Lucy moves into a separate old folk’s home, they meet for one last time in New York City, where they retrace their honeymoon steps from decades before. The city opens up to them as if in a dream, as they are given a ride from a car salesman, free drinks from the hotel manager, and a waltz from the conductor. They drink, get a little tipsy, and are merry. Lucy recites an old anonymous poem about marriage, “A Man and a Maid” that closes:  “My dear, she said/the die is cast/the vows have been spoken/the rice has been thrown/into the future we will travel alone/With you, said the maid/I am not afraid.” Bark and Lucy use art and drink to delay reality, the excess of reality that so turned off viewers. But it seeps in anyway. Bark gets on a train, Lucy waves goodbye, with nothing left to sustain them but the memory of a transcendent love. The question is whether that is enough.

18 Responses A Man and a Maid: Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
Posted By Steve Burrus : May 19, 2015 3:59 pm

It’s relly too bAD that movie going audiences back in the 1930′s could not have had a certain level of sophistication in their tastes to truly appreciate this movie the way that McCarey wanted it to be in all of its’ various aspects.

Posted By robbushblog : May 19, 2015 4:55 pm

This is such a beautiful, heartbreaking movie. Orson Welles said of it to Peter Bogdanovich, that it could “make a stone cry.” I watched it on TCM on Christmas night a few years ago. I started watching it with my mom and little sister, but they couldn’t take it and left the room. I bought the Blu-ray. It is beautiful.

Posted By Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman) : May 19, 2015 8:11 pm

This beautiful story hits too close to home for some. Are we fated to be like torn apart like Lucy and Bark? Will we someday be as “pragmatic” in dealing with our family as their children?

Posted By george : May 19, 2015 8:51 pm

“McCarey had little support at Paramount to film such a grim tale.”

At least Paramount did let him make it, even if some compromises were required. Can you imagine any studio today green-lighting such a film — a drama about old people with a sad ending? How would that play in the multiplexes?

And it is the saddest ending I’ve ever seen in a movie. But it’s perfect. This is a beautiful movie.

Posted By robbushblog : May 19, 2015 9:07 pm

I can imagine a French studio green-lighting such a movie these days.

Posted By george : May 19, 2015 10:04 pm

McCarey might have to turn to Kickstarter to get funding today.

Posted By Steve Burrus : May 19, 2015 10:10 pm

Back to my origimnal post : Why did we all have to wait some 70+ years before a movie of this quality could be accepted by the movie going masses?? I truly wish that the 1930′s movie watching audiences could haVE been a little more sophisticated in their tastes.

Posted By george : May 19, 2015 10:14 pm

“I can imagine a French studio green-lighting such a movie these days.”

Right. It was called AMOUR.

Posted By george : May 19, 2015 10:19 pm

Steve: I don’t know that MAKE WAY has ever been accepted by the “movie going masses.” It has been accepted by film buffs, like the people who post here. We are not the “masses.” The masses are going to Transformers and Avengers movies — and PAUL BLART, MALL COP 2.

As Peter Bogdanovich said, audiences in the ’30s weren’t interested in a movie about the problems of the elderly, and audiences today have even less interest.

Posted By robbushblog : May 20, 2015 1:58 pm

EXACTLY, George! You caught on to what I meant. Oh, and I saw AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, but I will not see any Transformers or Paul Blart movies.

Posted By Ann Brown : May 20, 2015 9:35 pm

I watched this film several years ago on TCM. It is compelling, tragic, grim and well-made. I believe when McCarey won the Oscar for the Awful Truth, he said something like “I think I just won for the wrong film.” That said, I could never watch it again. Too sad.

Posted By george : May 22, 2015 8:41 pm

robbushblog: I hope you see MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, which is a great action movie.

Posted By robbushblog : May 22, 2015 8:50 pm

George- I saw it Saturday. I hope it forces other action filmmakers to rethink all of that shaky cam, too close cam, and too fast-edited stuff they’ve been doing for far too many years.

Posted By george : May 22, 2015 9:37 pm

Yes, after all the incoherent CGI action scenes in recent movies, it was great to see practical effects again (real cars and trucks, real stuntmen risking their lives), and action scenes shot and edited so that you can clearly follow what’s happening.

Posted By Thufir Hawat : June 30, 2016 12:29 am

@george and others: A reminder for those always ready to castigate the present-this kind of movie is still being made today, but at smaller independent studios/companies like Illumination Pictures and released through the boutique division of companies like Sony Picture’s Sony Pictures Classics, or through Fox Searchlight. They also get the Academy Awards Best Picture each and every year, so please stop with the cheese and whine about how they wouldn’t be made today. They are still being made today, just not shown as widely.

This picture reminds me of Tokyo Story (東京物語, Tōkyō Monogatari), which was inspired by Make Way For Tomorrow. A tragedy the the Japanese film succeeded where the American one couldn’t at the time it was released.

@robbushblog: Amazing hows you hate the Paul Blart movies and the Transformers ones, but love to bits all of the shitty sci-fi B movies of the 50′s and 60′s (and the comedies) that are considered ‘classics’ by you, people like you, and TCM. One thing that you have to remember, though, as one wise person said to me, ‘Movies that are truly despised by everyone (the Transformers series) don’t keep doing $700-$800 million. There is obviously a lot of people out there that really like those movies.’ And these people will find them as ‘classic’ and beloved when they get old, probably even going so far as to show them on channels like TCM in the future. Something for you and the programmers at TCM (who once showed crap like Hillbillys In A Haunted House), as well as the writer here at Movie Morlocks that praised Hillbillys In A Haunted House when it aired a while back.

Posted By robbushblog : June 30, 2016 4:18 am

Thufir Hawat – I judge movies on individual bases. There are some great sci fi movies from the 50s and there are some bad ones. They never spent the modern day equivalent of what is spent on Transformers movies, so a cheesy result is expected. I can’t abide a terrible movie if it costs $200 million to make. It has no excuse. I like modern movies AND classic movies, but they have to be good TO ME regardless of when they were made.

Posted By George : June 30, 2016 8:39 pm

Yes, Thufir, there are still good indie movies being made. But they have even poorer distribution than they had in the ’90s. There’s no longer a Weinstein-led Miramax getting indies shown in multiplexes.

The studios made “franchise” movies in the ’30s and ’40s, only they were called “series” movies. Aside from the Thin Man series, they were low-budget B movies that played the bottom half of double bills, or at Saturday matinees for children.

The idea of spending $250M (or the ’40s equivalent) to make a Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan or Tarzan movie would have been laughable 70 years ago. Those movies cost so much and earned so much. The money they earned was used to finance more ambitious films: The Grapes of Wrath, The Wizard of Oz, The Lost Weekend, Citizen Kane. And hundreds more.

Today, the profits from franchise movies are used produce bigger and more expensive franchise movies. And not much else. Batman v. Superman did indeed cost $250M, and Captain America: Civil War (a much better movie) was in the same ball park.

This is, for the most part, what the major studios are making these days: lowbrow B movies with A budgets.

BTW, if Transformers movies get shown on TCM, it will probably be as “camp classics,” much like Hillbillies in a Haunted House (or Reefer Madness or Robot Monster). Also, the amount of money a movie earns has NOTHING to do with its quality. Movie history is full of great movies that flopped and awful movies that were hits.

Posted By roberta gottesman : December 9, 2018 5:33 am

I had never seen nor heard of this movie previously. It was so real and, of course, very sad. But there is one issue that all the above comments overlooked–namely, it was in the middle of the Great Depression. Families being split up because of economic uncertainty and foreclosure was nothing new. As far as being sad, heartbreaking, etc., one need to look no further than “Grapes of Wrath” to see what poverty did to families and to whole countries. By 1937, when “Make Way for Tomorrow” was released, the Depression had had a strangle-hold on our country for seven years. Audiences may have been less sophisticated then compared to today, but they were also living the movie. I think it was perfectly understandable that they and studios were reluctant to make/release such a film. Yes, it was a beautiful if sad movie, but that elderly couple were able to part company–probably forever–but with their love and dignity intact.

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