Classic Scene: Train to Tomorrow

Train to Tomorrow

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

Directed by Leo McCarey

The Scene: After losing everything materially in the Great Depression and losing their dignity to their ungrateful grown children, the elderly couple Lucy and Barkley Cooper are finally back together again in New York. They had spent the night before in the hotel where they had their honeymoon years before, giving us viewers the first glimpse of them being truly happy in a very long time. With a restored sense of pride and optimism, the couple go forward with their plan of heading west to make a new life. At the train station, Barkley decides to go first so that he can find work and get established and he will send for his beloved wife once everything is ready. Granted one of the plot points of the film is that given his age, Barkley has had difficulty finding work. The two gleefully shower each other with their hopes of a brighter tomorrow where they can once again be reunited permanently, but there is an undercurrent of sadness they are trying to hide. The truth of the matter is these soulmates will probably never see each other again due to the Depression and their advanced age. The two give each other a final good-bye, “just in case” in which they gush about their love for each other which has remained unchanged after all these years. The train leaves the station as Barkley holds onto his foolish optimism that better days are on the way. On the platform we see Lucy’s facade fade away and the heartbreaking truth hits her that she will probably never see her tomorrowcvrhusband again. And with that tearful ending their song “Let me Call You Sweetheart” plays us to the end credits. 

The Breakdown: Orson Welles famously said of Make Way for Tomorrow that it could “make a stone cry”. This is truly a heartbreaking movie as it takes a look at a loving couple in their twilight years when typically couples are expected to reap the rewards of their years of hard work. Instead the Depression takes everything away from them and they are forced to live separate lives as none of their children have the room or the will to take them both in. Due to the fact that Make Way for Tomorrow is a love story about two older people which is not the most marketable concept, it was largely forgotten by all but the most devoted movie fans for years. Thankfully it has been preserved as a part of the Criterion Collection to be preserved for future generations. For a large chunk of the movie, these two soulmates are forced to rely on letters and phone calls to make up the distance between them. Finally reuniting for a single night in New York, they now have to leave each other again. There is so much left unsaid between these two characters at this moment, things both know in their heart-of-hearts that they do not have the courage to say aloud. Given the crippled economy there is slim chance any employer will give a good job to an elderly man when there are barely jobs for people in their working prime. For the sake of each other they are forced to put on their brave faces knowing, that after all they have been through they may not be able to take another heartbreak.

Best Bit: The acting in this scene from Beulah Bondi grabs you by the heart and does not let go. She glows with optimism on the train platform as she and Barkley make pie-in-the-sky dreams of reuniting once he has made it out west and found work. As the train leaves she happily waves her husband off and in the matter of seconds we watch as her facial expression melts away into heartbreaking despair. That glowing optimism she once displayed was just an act of a woman putting on a brave face, unsure if she will ever see the love of her life again. Even under layers of make-up to make her make much older than she truly was at the time, her emotional response leaps off the screen.