For those not familiar with the film's plot or reputation, my look at Make Way for Tomorrow contains spoilers.
Lucy and Barkley Cooper (Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore) have long since raised their family and sent them out into the world. The middle-aged children are comfortable in their lives and the years have made them, if not neglectful of their aged parents, they have placed the older folks comfortably in the back of their minds. Of course, to parents, the age of the children has nothing to do with their pride and love in what was once that happy little group of children.
The home in which these children were reared has been lost to the bank. Bookkeeper Barkley has not worked for four years and the six months grace period given is about to expire. The adult Cooper children are shocked, they wish they had known sooner, perhaps something could have been done.
George (Thomas Mitchell) and his wife Anita (Fay Bainter) live in the city and their daughter Rhoda (Barbara Read) is about to go to college. Nellie's (Minna Gombell) husband Harvey's (Porter Hall) business is doing as well as it should. It also is not doing badly. Harvey doesn't like the existence of in-laws.
Cora's (Elisabeth Risdon) husband Ralph (Bill Payne) has nothing against in-laws, but their house is small and Cora has a natural coldness. Robert (Ray Mayer) is the "baby" of the family and a bachelor. He isn't even considered as a caretaker of his parents. Addie lives in California and hasn't really been in touch with anyone for years - not even an orange!
Quite naturally, Lucy and Barkley do not want to be a burden, but that is just what they are in the eyes of their children. Quite naturally, Lucy and Barkley wish to remain together, but that is impossible given the various circumstances of their brood. It is decided that Lucy will live in New York with George and Anita, sharing a room with granddaughter Rhoda. Barkley will remain in the country, sleeping on Cora's couch. Of course, this will only be for three months or so until something more permanent can be sorted out. Like their parents facing eviction, the Cooper children hope for "something to turn up."
Anita cares as much about Lucy "as any daughter-in-law can, but..." Lucy can't help but be a hindrance to the family, taking up space, interrupting the Bridge classes that Anita teaches, keeping Rhoda's friends from the apartment, keeping Mamie (Louise Beavers) from her night out. In a letter to Barkley, Lucy describes the visit to a Home for Aged Women arranged by their daughter Nellie; how dreary it was and how lovely Nellie thought it. Lucy can see what is coming and she is frightened.
During one of Anita's Bridge classes, Lucy receives a welcome phone call from Barkley. The audience and the room full of card players hear one side of the conversation. The loneliness expressed is heartbreaking.
Barkley becomes ill with a bad cold under Cora's loving care. His only friend, shopkeeper Max Rubens (Maurice Moscovitch) helps by commiserating, providing encouragement, and offering chicken soup.
Barkley's health becomes the impetus for the Cooper children's solution to the problem of what to do with mom and dad. Addie is told that Pa must move to California for his health. Addie agrees, but she can only take one of them. Lucy discovers a letter to George confirming her enrolment in the Home for Aged Women. Lucy's innate dignity and thoughtfulness will not let George tell her the plans. She requests the move to the Home which we know she despises. George knows this as well and will always bear the shame.
Lucy and Barkley have a few hours to spend together as he comes to the city to board the train taking him west. Lucy orders the children to keep the news of her move to the home a secret. As far as Barkley is concerned, Lucy will continue to be cared for by her favourite child.
Memories of their honeymoon 50 years earlier, bring the couple to the Vogard hotel. The kindness which should have been their due from their children is found in the strangers in the city. The hotel learns of the couple's earlier connection with the establishment and treats them with consideration worthy of one human being to another. These scenes are treated with a delicacy and dignity that keep the emotions the audience has shared and are experiencing simmering until they fill our hearts.
The children are waiting for the couple at home with a roast beef dinner. They are making a celebration of this parting. Barkley phones to let them know that he and Lucy have other plans. We do not hear what Barkley says to his children but we see their reaction.
Robert: "That's funny, isn't it? We've known all along that we're probably the most good-for-nothing bunch of kids who were ever raised, but it didn't bother us much until we found out that Pop knew it too."
George, in his one unselfish act, delays the time when they should have left for the train station.
Nellie: "Why didn't you tell us? That wasn't a very nice thing to do, George."
George: "I think so. I kind of thought they'd like to be alone."
Pa: "It's been very nice knowing you, Miss Breckenridge."