I've spent so much time in and on Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story that I was fairly certain I already knew the film on which it was based, the long unattainable and finally released on DVD 1937 Leo McCarey picture Make Way for Tomorrow. Both films tell of aged parents who try to stay with their grown-up children, only to find their offspring irritated and put-upon by the apparent burden of the elderly. It may be trite and unuseful to compare the two, as many have done, but the much anticipated video release of McCarey's film by Criterion, shocked me out of my presumption.
Whereas Ozu's film adopts a distance through a story and tone more responsive to and at ease with the flow of the world—the parents vacation to see their children, we travel around a lot, see difference houses and cities, and the children's treatment of their parents almost seems impersonal, symptomatic of society at the time—it is hard to believe McCarey's earlier picture was produced by a studio in 1937. Make Way for Tomorrow is much harsher, more detailed, has a more minute focus. Fault, a nebulous judgment in Ozu's avoidance of psychology, rears its head in the American version. The parents' house is seized by the bank due to the father's continued unemployment, and he neglects to tell his children of his financial woes. When the father and mother end up leaving their house and separately staying with their barely tolerating children, the parents are far from the self-effacing couple in Tokyo Story, and display an irritability at their separation and a small, but crucial cluelessness about their presence in their children's cramped lives that would frustrate the most kind-hearted host.
What it comes down to is that Viña Delmar's screenplay, but most especially McCarey's direction, evens out this relentlessly sentimental film—which from the very first scene lays heavy the sadness surrounding the life of the parents and then proceeds, simply, straightforwardly, and without any of Hollywood's rabid desire for story or a narrative's goals, to dramatize various exemplary scenarios of sadness—by fearlessly showing the limpness of the mother and father's character going hand-in-hand with their love. It is a far more uncomfortable movie to watch than Ozu's for this very reason, that for all the sadness over the parents' mistreatment, we can plainly see in small domestic scenes hints of how this fate was determined.
McCarey, who Dan Sallitt has astutely noted prefers to stage his scenes with an audience watching, gives Make Way for Tomorrow's audience an analog in one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the picture, one which holds a continued emotional note for a terrible and terribly impressive length of time. In it we see the mother's total unawareness of and indifference to the household affairs of her daughter-in-law as she makes a long distance call to her husband in the middle of the daughter's bridge lesson. The work of the dozen or so of the class's pupils is paused as they are forced to witness the wrenchingly moving slow-motion syrup of the mother's one-sided conversation of love and longing. Like that bridge class—which notably does not look on in annoyance or impatience—the film's audience is also held in limbo between a kind of heart-melted awe at the boundless love of this elderly couple and a polite irritation that the world of the couple has shrunken to involve just themselves and no others.
Within this paean to life-long coupledom and love and against the mistreatment by the young—the former being far more important even though the latter is constantly critically pointed to as the film's subject—is this bitter, realistic note: the refuge within the mother and father's boundless love for one another is perhaps one reason why the father has gone unemployed and went broke without telling anyone, and that his children have been raised to be shiftless or weak. Because unlike the Ozu film, in Make Way for Tomorrow we are able to read psychology into these characters, and see the softness of affection translating, in the past, to a sloppy and permissive upbringing which probably has determined the parents' treatment by their own children. The film is all the harsher—and richer—for keeping to bumpy, claustrophobic interiors, making the parents heartfelt but ingratiating, and their children's indifference or cruelty a result of what we simultaneously find so touching.