You Can’t Take It with You: Capra’s Other Comedy

When it comes to relationships, a critical point is meeting your significant other’s parents or family. Many of us have been through this and more will experience the nerves of it. In fact, my wonderful girlfriend Laci (who write a tremendous blog on her travels) had this experience during the New Year’s holiday. She met the rest of family. Well, sweetheart, they loved you. Welcome to the family.

But what happens when the families of the two star-crossed lovers are so seismically different that the very relationship is threatened? Many people, too (not me, though) have had that very experience. But, I dare say, that nobody has experienced what Tony Kirby (James Stewart) and Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) go through in Frank Capra’s 1938 Best Picture Winner, You Can’t Take It with You.

Tony, who comes from an exceedingly wealthy banking family, falls in love with his administrative assistant, Alice, who has her roots in an extraordinarily eccentric family. When the two meet, Capra’s wit and humor (as we saw in last week’s review of It Happened One Night) showed itself in this incredibly heartwarming and timeless screwball comedy.

Throughout this movie, there are several recurring similarities between this film and last week’s Capra winner. These include wealth (or not worrying about money), love, happiness and being your own fierce and independent person while living the American dream.

Released during the Great Depression, this movie, again, features a happy, carefree ending designed to give people an escape from everyday struggles. Although the economy started to rebound throughout 1938, the unemployment rate was still more than 10 percent. So, yes, America needed an escape.

And, 80 years late, the screwball comedy provided me, too, an escape and I loved every minute of this movie.

Now, for the rest of the story.

Plot

While I did love You Can’t Take It with You, it wasn’t all at once. Movies like Slumdog Millionaire or more recent releases like I, Tonya, I fell in love with during the first few minutes. But this film took two entire viewings and a couple of good night’s sleep for me to appreciate it.

To say I felt this film to be odd at first is a colossal understatement. But, I’m getting ahead of myself, so let me back up.

The movie begins with A.P. Kirby (Tony’s father, played by Edward Arnold), a big-name Wall Street banker who runs his own firm, catching his son, and the rest of his executive up with his newest business deal to monopolize the munitions and weapons business. A.P. is buying up 12 New York blocks to make room for factories. He’s almost got it, save for one holdout, Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore), who refuses to sell his house.

You slowly find out that the Vanderhof house is a very utopian place. He encourages the members of his family to indulge in each of their habits, no matter how eccentric they may be. His daughter writes plays, his son-in-law makes fireworks in the basement, his granddaughter makes candy and dances while her husband has a printing press. Alice is Vanderhof’s other granddaughter and also lives at the house.

When it comes time for the parents to meet each other, simple awkward hilarity ensues.

But, the plot is not always clear. The film runs just a little more than two hours. For the first 75 minutes or so, this film is almost a circus. It’s incredibly busy, introducing several characters all at once, and it’s hard to follow in a single watch.

However, in the final 45 minutes, the characters are tested and face the bitter realities of a cold world in which nothing is for sure. Sadness, heartbreak, quandaries of mortality and a crumbling utopia make up the final portion of the film. That’s where the story is saved. It’s like a bad football game that has a great fourth quarter, it makes the whole thing worth it. 1.

Writing/Dialogue

Robert Riskin wrote the screenplay for You Can’t Take It with You, but the idea is based on George Kaufman’s and Moss Hart’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. In fact, the play was released only in 1937 and was still enjoying a Broadway run when this movie premiered in September 1938.

Even though Riskin also wrote It Happened One Night, the scripts for both of these movies are very different yet similar. I wrote primarily about the sheer misogyny in It Happened One Night, but this week’s Capra installment features a deeper script with some humor similarities.

Again, the script has many great one-liners (“You know, every time I think about how lucky I am, I feel like screaming.”) but also has tons of prophetic phrases (“Lincoln said, ‘With malice toward none, with charity to all.’ Nowadays they say, “Think the way I do or I’ll bomb the daylights outta you.’”). This movie speaks about the specialness of life and it made me realize just how much we have not changed since the 1930s. Or, ever, really.

The script was able to speak to the everyman while still making the subtext easy to understand. This takes real writing talent and it certainly did not go unnoticed. 1.

Sound

I wrote last week about the lack of music in It Happened One Night, and for the most part, You Can’t Take It with You was the same. This movie relied on its sound effects.

And boy, did it have a lot of them. Being a very eccentric house, Vanderhof’s place is a ton of sheer calamity. There is constant noise going on throughout the house, most of it going on at the same time.

There’s one scene in particular that stands out to me. While Tony’s folk are visiting, the whole lot of them are arrested for disturbing the peace (a crap accusation, if you ask me). While the cops are in the home, fireworks stockpile in the basement goes off. The resulting chaos makes me pity anyone who watches it with headphones. But, I also admire Capra for using a daring scene to push the limits of sound capture and sound delivery technology at the time. 1.

Set Design

While Capra’s last Best Picture winner felt “bigger” with the inclusion of outdoor scenes, this film returns to the soundstage exclusively. It felt much smaller and I was a little bored when diagnosing the set.

But, that’s not to say it was bad. With a movie that takes place so much in a single living room, the set appears that someone had a lot of fun designing it.

The set in the living room obviously reflects the calamity that goes on in there. The little knick knacks are seemingly endless in randomness and quite fun. There’s everything from family portraits to a printing press to a xylophone and even a pennant for the Alabama Crimson Tide (Roll Tide). A well-populated and well-designed set exceeded my expectations for a sound stage film and gave me that much more good to see in the movie. 1.

Cinematography

Frank Capra used the same cinematographer, Joseph Walker, for most of his movies, and You Can’t Take It with You is no exception. After glowing about his cinematography last week, I naturally had high expectations for this movie. But, a return to the soundstage also restricted Walker’s creativity. I was disappointed.

Walker used a tripod almost exclusively and there were little camera movements. Pans and tilts were still there, sure, but that was it. This made the movie very bland, and, it goes without saying I wasn’t impressed. 0.

Acting

I’ve already mentioned James Stewart and Jean Arthur. And, while the story does revolve around them, they don’t steal the show, which is a first for this blog. That honor belongs to Lionel Barrymore (Martin Vanderhof) and Edward Arnold (Anthony P. Kirby). Both characters are locked in a battle for their respective souls and that conflict plays out in direct confrontations with each other.

The jovial and carefree Barrymore (who had to shoot the whole movie on crutches because of incredibly painful arthritis) plays the man affectionately known as “Grandpa” to the whole neighborhood. He’s constantly looking for the fun in life despite incredible outside stresses and his old age slowing him down. He’s the perfect grandfather to anyone and he’s the perfect voice of reason throughout the film.

A.P. Kirby is Vanderhof’s moral opposite. Arnold’s performance of the mogul is commanding and he dominates any scene he’s in. His character is the true changer in the story and it’s unique in storytelling for the villain to shift the most. But, he does, and that made me appreciate this film much more. This effect was done so well that I only realized it during my reflection. 1.

Directing

You Can’t Take It with You was the third and final movie to win Frank Capra the Oscar for Best Director and his second and Best Picture winner.

Before last week, I had never seen a Capra film and he defied my expectations in a very pleasant way. I believed that a director with his reputation would provide me movies that would make me feel something. And they did, just not what I thought Frank Capra would make me feel. I laughed, reflected and escaped from my life. His films still speak to me, and others that seen them, 80 years after they premiered. He captured the very common essence that separates generations of people. That’s a powerful thing to feel and it speaks to his prowess and ability as a director.

No, these two movies weren’t the best ones I’ve seen, but I feel better for having watched them. The way that his films connected with me and joy they brought to me are, quite simply, why I love movies and why I love writing this blog. Films connect me to people I’ve never met, characters and stories. Thank you for that, Frank Capra, and I bid you adieu. 1.

Bonus Points

I have to give a point to acting. I didn’t even mention the style and delivery of the lines from the actors. Most of the older movies have their actors projecting as if they’re in a theater. Not this one. This is the earliest example I’ve seen of the actors delivering their lines in a soft and conversational tone. This added an excellent personal element to the film. Don’t believe me? Voice delivery is a real thing in movies. For an example, check out this excellent video on the subject.

Final Score: 7/10

Oscar Facts

You Can’t Take It with You won the 11th Academy Award for Best Picture on February 23, 1939, at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. The ceremony did not have a host. The movie beat out The Adventures of Robin Hood, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Boys Town, The Citadel, Four Daughters, Grand Illusion, Jezebel, Pygmalion, and Test Pilot for Best Picture. It total,  You Can’t Take It with You was nominated for seven awards, the most of any film that year, and won only two: Best Director and Best Picture. It was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Best Writing, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound Recording.

Other winners that night were Spencer Tracy winning Best Actor for Boys Town and Bette Davis taking home Best Actress for her role in Jezebel. Best Supporting Actor went to Walter Brennan for his role in Kentucky and Best Supporting Actress went to Fay Bainter for Jezebel.

Final Notes

It’s awards season again! The nominees for the 90th Academy Awards will be announced beginning at 5:22 am PST on January 24. Stay tuned to 89 & Counting for coverage of the run-up to and the ceremony on March 4.

Next week, I’ll take a look at The Deer Hunter, the 51st Best Picture Winner, directed by Michael Cimino. After that, it’s a line of very good movies that you won’t want to miss: No Country For Old Men, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Dances with Wolves, My Fair Lady, and then Casablanca.

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