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Make Way for Tomorrow: We Laugh, and Our Hearts Ache

Like many other French cinephiles, I discovered Make Way for Tomorrow relatively late, although we had been interested in Leo McCarey for years. We had hunted down his Laurel and Hardy pictures, adored Duck Soup, the best of the Marx Brothers films, considered The Awful Truth a classic, and stood up for An Affair to Remember in the face of the critical establishment. (I do wonder if we were right to defend Rally ’Round the Flag, Boys!, in which Joan Collins whispers, I believe, “Pink peignoir, pink boudoir, pink me.” It’s a film I saw five times in a row and haven’t dared to look at again in three decades.)

Delmar Daves was the first person I knew of to warmly praise Make Way for Tomorrow, in the early sixties, leading us to the discovery of a film that had not yet been released in France. Daves had served as McCarey’s cowriter on Love Affair and its remake, An Affair to Remember, which included those sequences from the first version that had been cut or never filmed. Daves considered Make Way for Tomorrow one of McCarey’s masterpieces, one of the greatest American films ever made, and one of the most egregiously overlooked. He had no end of praise for it, passionately telling us about the film’s emotional intensity and, particularly, its last thirty minutes. He compared its emotional impact to that of the silent films of Frank Borzage.

A few years later, producer and screenwriter Sidney Buchman told me Make Way for Tomorrow was McCarey’s favorite of his films—and the one that led him to take his revenge on Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn. Whenever McCarey went over budget or fell behind schedule while shooting The Awful Truth, Cohn relentlessly reminded him of Make Way’s commercial failure. After The Awful Truth’s triumphant release, McCarey led Cohn to believe he would renew his contract with Columbia. But the day before they had agreed to sign, McCarey published an ad in Variety announcing he had just signed with RKO for Going My Way.

John Ford and Jean Renoir were equally fervent in their admiration for Make Way for Tomorrow. When Pierre Rissient finally distributed it in France in the midsixties (along with Ruggles of Red Gap, which was just as hard to find and equally overlooked), and I worked with him on the release, Renoir wrote a few enthusiastic lines to be added to earlier praise from Ford, Ernst Lubitsch, and Daves.

My former wife, Colo O’Hagan, prepared the subtitles with historian Bernard Eisenschitz. I remember that she was in tears as she typed them up. She was still overwhelmed by the profound emotion the film had stirred up in her.

Despite a warm critical reception, the film did not do well at the box office. We had implored the critics not to summarize its plot, to find a literary way of describing the film’s emotional tone without revealing it was about a couple of old people sent off to separate retirement homes by their children, but our pleas often fell on deaf ears. And once the film’s plotline was disclosed, the positive effect of the critics’ praise was wiped out.

I will never forget my amazement when I saw the print Rissient received from the United States, which he showed me right away. That screening remains one of the most powerful moments of the decade for me. The nearly miraculous way in which McCarey manages to avoid the bathos inherent in such a subject, steering clear of sticky pity, of condescension and moralizing sermons—it all transfixed me. It was as though an arrow had struck me and stayed vibrating in my heart.

I’ve experienced the same feeling every time I’ve seen the film in the forty years since. It’s the same feeling I get when I see Borzage’s 7th Heaven or Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story. As in both those films, McCarey immediately finds the exact distance he must be from his characters. We’re always in among them, in their places, feeling everything they experience—yet at the same time, McCarey keeps us just far enough away that we can be witness to their flaws and blunders, both comical and poignant. Like Borzage, he uses humor, the comedy of certain unexpected reactions, to defuse the traps of melodrama. He is assisted in his achievement by the magnificent performances of Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi, probably in the best roles of their careers.

And our laughter—for we often laugh during Make Way for Tomorrow—increases the emotional impact tenfold. We laugh, and our hearts ache . . . McCarey remains the great specialist of these shifts in tone and mood, as seen in certain sequences of Love Affair and, of course, in the Gettysburg Address scene in Ruggles of Red Gap. This is a laughter that grips your heart and “rattles the cage,” as they say in Quebec. Like certain scenes in Chekhov, where we move from laughter to tears without warning, with a sudden, painfully smooth fluidity. Like life, when we know how to observe it and faithfully put it on the screen.

Translated by Nicholas Elliott.

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