Make Way for Tomorrow is a 1937 dramatic film directed by Leo McCarey.
Barkley and Lucy Cooper (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi), an elderly married couple, have just lost their house of many years to foreclosure. Instead of graciously offering to take care of their elderly parents, their adult children — George (Thomas Mitchell), Cora (Elisabeth Ridson), Nellie (Minna Gombell), and Robert (Ray Mayer) — are horrified at the idea of having them both in their homes. As a result, they decide to separate their parents, promising day after day that they will reunite them.
George and his wife Anita (Fay Bainter) take the "burden" of his mother, and Cora and her husband Bill take her father. Knowing they are considered outsiders — even useless — in the fast-paced lives of their children, the Cooper parents try to make the best of their situation, but to no happy avail. Then, they spend a lovely afternoon in New York City, remembering those early days in their marriage, when the world was so promising and new.
In its day, this film was panned by audiences for McCarey's uncompromising ending (which he fought the studio to keep intact). Now, it's lauded for its subtle, beautiful story, observing the aging and the people they leave behind. Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu was a big fan of the film, to the point that his 1953 film Tokyo Story is often described as a Foreign Remake of Make Way for Tomorrow.
This work consists of the following tropes:
- Amazingly Embarrassing Parents: Mother Cooper and her creaking rocking chair during the bridge class, followed by looking at the cards in one player's hand and mentioning to the rest of the table that he has a good Hearts hand.
- Annoying Patient: When Cora and Bill call a doctor to their house after Barkley comes down with flu, Barkley, already smarting from having been on the couch under a thin blanket until just before the doctor arrived and then hurried into a comfortable bed in his nightshirt and bare feet, does whatever he can to antagonise the clearly recently-qualified doctor. He refuses to say "ninety-nine" when asked (snarking that he'd rather say "twenty-three", which the doctor is too young to recognise as meaning "skidoo"), and the doctor later tells Cora and Bill that when he tried to look at Barkley's throat, the old man bit him.
- Big Applesauce: The Cooper parents spend their last day together in NYC. It's also where they spent their honeymoon, and they even return to the hotel where they stayed and are graciously received by the manager.
- Big Fancy House: All the brothers and sisters bicker that they don't have room for both their parents when it's plain to see they all live in fairly large homes that, if they actually cared and tried, could fit both parents fine.
- Bleak Abyss Retirement Home: George wants to put his mother in The Idlewyld Home for Aged Women—just to get rid of something he deems useless and forgotten. Lucy intimated in her letter to Barkley that she visited it, and didn't like it one bit, especially with all the many hints from Anita (George's wife) that they would like to install her there. Lucy—who knows it's hard for George to bring up the subject—pretends she doesn't know they want her to go there. But as George tries to muster the courage to tell her, she tells him she would like to go, just to save her son from the uncomfortable conversation, and to make it seem like she would actually enjoy it. As if that's not bad enough, since Lucy knows Barkley would be devastated by the idea of her going to Idlewyld, she tells George that he and his siblings must never tell their father. Talk about heartbreaking.
- Bratty Teenage Daughter: Rhoda, George's daughter, won't invite her friends over, because her grandmother talks to them too much, and she lies to her mother, father, and grandmother about her scandalous affair with an older man.
- Brutal Honesty: Rhoda bluntly tells her grandmother that her dreams of Barkley finding work so that they can be re-united are pure fantasy, as he is too old, and that Lucy should face facts. Lucy sadly comments that while facing facts seems easy to a 17-year-old with her whole life ahead of her, for a woman of 70, entertaining those sorts of fantasies is one of the few joys she has left. This gives Rhoda a rare moment of regret for her cold treatment of Lucy.
- Downer Beginning: The film begins with the Cooper parents reunited with their children, explaining to them that they can no longer pay the mortgage to their house. Cue to the children bickering who will have to take the parents.
- Downer Ending: Barkley is unable to find work in New York, so he agrees to Cora's idea that he go to California to live with his and Lucy's fifth child, Addie, and since she doesn't have room for both parents, Lucy agrees to George's idea that she move to a retirement home. In the final scene, Lucy puts Barkley on the train to California, both of them knowing they will probably never see each other again but doing what they can to pretend otherwise.
- Elder Abuse:
- When father Cooper is sick with the flu, his daughter, Cora, leaves him on the couch with barely a blanket to protect him; but once the doctor comes over, she makes sure to put him in the nice, big bed, and make it seem like he was there the whole time.
- Mother Cooper's feelings are always disregarded, and George, Anita, and Rhoda's condescending attitude is none too pleasant either.
- Good Parents: It's implied that both Barkley and Lucy were caring and comforting parents; however, their hard work doesn't show.
- Happily Married: Even after 50 years of marriage, both Barkley and Lucy are still very much in love.
- Hypocrite: Nellie fields a phone call from George when he asks if she can take Lucy for the evening while Anita hosts her bridge class, all while her husband, Harvey, grumbles about how he married Nellie, not her parents. Nellie shushes him and tells Anita that they can't take Lucy, as they're going out to the theatre so Harvey can entertain some clients. After she hangs up, she asks Harvey who will be joining them. "My mother," Harvey admits sheepishly.
- Irony: The Coopers are almost always treated kindly by strangers (most notably, the manager of the hotel where they spent their honeymoon treats them to drinks and dinner when he learns of their previous stay), while their actual children treat them like dirt.
- Noodle Incident: We never find out exactly what Rhoda did, but it was scandalous enough for her family to have the fear of being publicly shamed.
- Offscreen Moment of Awesome: We don't know what father Cooper said to Nellie, but it shook her up enough to leave her silently horrified. Lampshaded when George tells his brother and sisters that they're terrible children, so they deserved whatever he said.
- Train-Station Goodbye: Probably one of the saddest, hardest goodbyes as Lucy puts Barkley on the train to California. Played subtly, but with context of what the Cooper parents did all day. So, so heart-wrenching.
- Where Did We Go Wrong?: Seems that the parents feel this. They may not say it, but they are definitely disappointed.