Once upon a time, there was a film director named Leo McCarey, who was beloved. He was beloved by mainstream Hollywood, who gave him several Oscar nominations and a victory for Going My Way in 1944,; he was beloved by French critics, who spent a lot of energy exploring how brilliantly he made films in the 1930s. Weirdly, he not much beloved now except by hardcore classic film buffs; you can stumble across Howard Hawks or Frank Capra or even George Cukor without really digging all that deep, it would be staggering to find a budding cinephile declare "I love the work of Leo McCarey" in the same way that it wouldn't for them to make the same claim of Hawks. I think this has much to do with his best-known films today being Going My Way, which is widely regarded (and fairly) as corny sentimentality; An Affair to Remember, which is widely regarded (and unfairly) as a musty melodrama for middle-aged women; and Duck Soup, which is widely regarded as being a director-proof Marx Brothers vehicle, as though the fact that it is also nearly universally praised as their best film is a mere coincidence.

This is entirely unfair, because two of those films are by no means his most characteristic or best work; following Duck Soup, he directed at least four other movies in the 1930s that are absolutely top-tier examples of studio filmmaking at its best. Of these, the filmmaker's personal favorite and arguably his film with the highest overall reputation among those who've seen it is Make Way for Tomorrow, our current subject; I am not myself quite inclined to call it better than Duck Soup or fellow 1937 release The Awful Truth (with which it shares screenwriter Viña Delmar), but that's pretty damn good company to be in regardless; and serving as the inspiration for Tokyo Story isn't too shabby either.

I will keep the plot synopsis brief: Lucy (Beulah Bondi) and Barkley Cooper (Victor Moore) are a very old married couple with five adult children; it's 1936, and the Depression has taken a lot out of the old folks, and they're about to be turned out of their home, a fact that they do not share with any of the younger Coopers until a week before it's going to happen. The best solution that can be spun together on short notice is for Lucy to live with their eldest child George (Thomas Mitchell), and his wife Anita (Fay Bainter), while Bark moves in with their daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon), and her husband Bill (Ralph Remley). Nobody ends up being terribly happy about this situation, and it does not end tremendously well.

McCarey was one of those directors who dabbled in a lot of genres - musicals, farces, love stories, family drama, light romantic comedy - but if there is a mean to which his work regresses, it tends to be the comic. Make Way for Tomorrow is absolutely not in any way a comedy, but it's assembled rather fascinatingly using the same vocabulary: slow-burn reaction shots, camera movements from person to person in anticipation of their next volley in a dialogue, cutaways that semi-ironically reveal the context of a close-up shot. With the sound turned off, there are scenes where one would never be able to tell that this was at heart an especially severe character drama. McCarey did a lot to establish the style of sound comedies, to be fair, and what one sees in this film could just as easily be the result of personal style. Except, in other straight-up dramas he made - Love Affair or its remake An Affair to Remember, for example - there is not quite that same sense of the visual language of a comedy being applied to a non-comedic story.

What, if anything, does this tell us about Make Way for Tomorrow? That's a bit tricky, and I have guesses rather than rock-steady theories. What seems likeliest is that McCarey was attempting to keep the film from devolving into either tragedy or melodrama, the two easiest places for sad stories about people stuck with choices that are all individually unacceptable to go. For this is, on the whole, one of the most stunning things about the movie: it is one of the most sober and even, at times, hopeless films of the Great Depression (Orson Welles famously said to Peter Bogdanovich that "it would make a stone cry"), but it never beats its breast and wails about the pain and injustice of it all, as you might expect of a film from this period, nor does it wallow about in nihilistic misery, as would have been true from just about any post-WWII period. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy melodramatic '30s wailing, and I enjoy nihilistic wallows. That's just not what Make Way for Tomorrow is interested in. It's a character drama, as I said, setting people up, and watching as they go down what feels, in retrospect, like the only path through a really awful situation with no upsides. If it is built like a comedy, perhaps this is because it is something of the blackest of comedies, and one without any jokes whatsoever: a comedy of manners from the howling pits of hell where tripping up over social contrivances causes severe pain to those involved rather than outsized, comic inconvenience.

Part of what makes the film so difficult to categorise is the fluidity with which McCarey changes tones and points of view (the Criterion Collection essay by Tag Gallagher is an exceptionally readable piece of formal analysis on this point that I could not possibly better), making absolutely certain that we have an opportunity to see how nobody is in the wrong and nobody is faultless. Bark and Lucy didn't get to where they are because of implacable social forces but because of a granite strain of bloody-minded stubbornness, and it's easy to see exactly why Lucy gets on Anita's nerves so much, and why having a joyless crank like Bark sitting around all day would turn Cora into a harsh bitch; but then, it's easy to understand why the parents would feel so blindsided by the realisation that their children have only a finite degree of love for the people who gave them life. The first hour of the movie is about very little other than rotating between those perspectives, with every new scene scraping up a little raw flesh; it is a film that does an extraordinary job of exploring the relationship between parents and adult children, a subject that cinema only reluctantly treats on, and rarely with more fairness and frankness than we see here. There are lumps, without a doubt; scenes and even whole characters that don't serve a purpose (Louise Beavers plays a maid, as she always does, whose existence in the film seems to add up, in total, to "even the blacks are impatient with Lucy's doddering"), but it would be dangerous to speak of what could be cut out of the film without damaging the whole edifice. The sum here is greater than the parts, no matter how good some of those parts might be - in the case of Bainter's, Moore's, and especially Bondi's performances, extraordinarily damn good.

As much as the first hour is a great character story, the final third is an absolute miracle - one of the greatest sequences in 1930s American cinema, a single afternoon spent between Lucy and Bark after they've been separated for weeks or more (the film carefully and deliberately makes it hard to tell how much time elapses, other than that it is all within the last quarter of 1936). It is visually distinctive from the very beginning: the entire movie till this point has been set in snowy winter locations, but here we are in a city, still cold (they wear coats and scarves), but not so cold-looking; and it is the first portion of the movie that uses two-shots so extensively. It is the first chunk of movie in which we meet new characters with almost every scene; it is, in point of fact, the first part of the movie since the opening in which Lucy and Bark are together at all.

I would not spoil it, for the viewer who has not seen the movie, and that is most people (it's remarkably obscure considering how much it's loved by nearly everyone who's seen it). But I can say, comfortably, that it is one of the most exquisitely moving depictions of 50 years of married life that has been filmed (even more credit to Bondi, who wasn't even 50 years old yet when the movie was made!). For most of the movie to this point, we have heard a great deal of talk about how much they miss each other, but there has been little context for that; only now are we given an extended sequence to see just how deeply their affection for one another goes. Their afternoon recreates the arc of their youthful passion; it serves as reminder and reinforcement both of what they have shared. And, without spoiling anything that isn't at least a little bit easy to guess long before, it is our act of sharing with them as they relive the experience of 50 years together that makes the final moments of the film far more cutting - the viewer, like the characters, is freshly aware of what their marriage really means, and it is that freshness which intensifies our sorrow at where things end up.

Movies about old people are even less common than movies about parents and children; in that respect, Make Way for Tomorrow is nothing less than a miracle, for it is both of these things, and it is excellent at both. But it is better at being about old people; from the title, which gets more brusque and uncaring the longer you meditate on it, to the appearance of a corny old song and a corny old poem, both treated with utmost sincerity, as are the characters themselves. If the film does not cast youth as villainous for being young, it is nonetheless extremely sad that the old don't have much space in a young world. Pieced together elliptically enough that it feels like an act of constant discovery rather than a message, the film's themes and narrative aren't especially new or innovative, but it's for exactly this reason that it is so insightful, unflinchingly true, and ultimately so heartbreaking it can barely be expressed.