So I wasn’t expecting to be left in floods of tears last night… by the director of ‘Duck Soup’?!
I got round to my friend’s house last night for movie night where I was told we would be watching ‘Make Way for Tomorrow’, a film that Orson Welles described as being able to “make a stone cry” and by Errol Morris as “the most depressing movie ever made, providing reassurance that everything will definitely end badly.”
But it’s directed by the great Leo McCarey, the guy who paired Laurel and Hardy together, made the excellent ‘Ruggles of Red Gap’ and directed The Marx Brothers funniest movie. How sad could this be?
Turns out fucking plenty!
‘Make Way for Tomorrow’ tells a very simple story — an elderly couple have their house foreclosed by the bank during the Depression. They have five adult children but none have the space to take both of them. So it is decided that the wife, Lucy Cooper, will stay with one of their children (in the city) and the husband, Barkley Cooper, will stay with another (who lives in the country). Just for a little while until they can be together again you understand.
However, as time goes on, unsurprisingly, the elderly parents start to get under their children’s feet so plans are taken to send the mother to a rest home and pass the father onto one of the other children who lives out in California and although it means they’ll be even further apart, if Barkley can get work, the mother could travel out and join him later. Until then Barkley will be come into the city to join his wife so they can see each other before he goes, enjoy an afternoon in the city together and then go to their son and daughter in-law’s house for dinner with the rest of their family before his train leaves, which is what their children want. But what if the parents do what they want for a change?
One of the first things that struck me about ‘Make Way for Tomorrow’ are the similarities between it and Ozu’s ‘Tokyo Story’ as both revolve around a displaced elderly couple being shuttled back and forth between selfish children and all told with heartbreaking humanity, so I wasn’t too surprised to find out it had directly influenced Ozu. And it is just as devastating as Ozu’s classic as halfway through I already had tears running down my face, and I didn’t think anything could make me cry more than Ozu!
This IS the saddest movie ever made! We watch these two people who have loved each other for fifty years going through the pain of separation and knowing, although unspoken, that there is not much time left. What makes it so powerful is that the more dismissive and irritated their family becomes of them the more we see everyone else — strangers, hotel managers, car salesman — become completely touched, moved and enthralled by these two old people who miss each other more than anything else in life.
There is a incredibly touching scene where Lucy is on the phone to her husband whilst her daughter in-laws bridge class are sitting silently and listen and as she simply and sweetly tells Barkley how much she loves him. The expressions on the bridge players are so moving, so real, as you can see them all recognising the depths of the emotions being laid out here.
Likewise there is a scene with Barkley where he is talking to a friend who is also getting on in years. Barkley talks incredibly movingly about missing his wife and, after Barkley leaves, the friend calls on his wife. “I want to see you!” She comes out of the kitchen rubbing her hands on her apron. “Why do you want to see me? You can see me!” to which he tells her “I just wanted to know you where there.” Yeah, that one really got me.
The other surprise ‘Make Way for Tomorrow’ has is its third act which reminded of a cross between Tom and Jerry’s ‘Mouse in Manhattan’ meets Murnau’s ‘Sunrise’ as we follow Barkley and Lucy on their night out in New York and just when you think the film can’t get any more moving or emotional, it does.
I won’t say anything about the final act of ‘Make Way for Tomorrow’ but afterwards one of my friends described it as being “a gift of love”. It really is one of the most emotional, cathartic endings to a film I have ever seen. By this point I was severely in need of tissues.
Add on top of all this the fact that the script is great, the directing spot on and the performances varying seemlessly between heartbreaking and side-splitting. Lucy and Barkley Cooper are one of cinema’s great screen couples.
So if you want a movie that is going to leave you in bits, and I mean complete bits, then watch ‘Make Way for Tomorrow’. Orson Welles and Errol Morris were right — this is, possibly, the saddest movie ever made and it is also a masterpiece. It will also make you cry. How do I know? Because even writing this has had me welling up again.