You Can’t Take It with You
Frank Capra won his third Best Directing Oscar for this Kaufman and Hart adaptation. Star Jean Arthur is radiant, and relative newcomer James Stewart seems to have lifted his ‘aw shucks’ nice-guy personal from his role. With Lionel Barrymore, Ann Miller, Dub Taylor, Spring Byington and a terrific Edward Arnold.
You Can’t Take It with You
Blu-ray + Digital HD
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
1938 / B&W / 1:37 flat / 126 min. / Street Date December 8, 2015 / 19.99
Starring Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart, Edward Arnold, Mischa Auer, Ann Miller, Spring Byington, Samuel S. Hinds, Donald Meek, H.B. Warner, Halliwell Hobbes, Dub Taylor, Mary Forbes, Lillian Yarbo, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson.
Cinematography Joseph Walker
Art Direction Stephen Goosson
Film Editor Gene Havlick
Original Music Dimitri Tiomkin
Written by Robert Riskin from the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
Produced and Directed by Frank Capra
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
One of Frank Capra’s brightest, most entertaining features, You Can’t Take It with You is a good starting point to discuss the problematic populist filmmaker. On a happy note, Sony’s new disc is a good restoration. The studio appears to be releasing out one classic Capra Blu-ray per year.
Capra’s brand of open sentimentality and homily-embracing warmth was called ‘Capra Corn.’ Initially derisive, the term was soon turned on its head to connote the director’s ‘magic spell’ of wholesome optimism. Critics and intellectuals grumbled about Capra’s popularity, and James Agee even resented the admittedly saccharine It’s a Wonderful Life. Ace screenwriter Robert Riskin famously complained that Frank Capra took full creative credit for his pictures, as if he had written them himself. It’s true – if Capra had his way, he’d take sole credit for everything: ‘one man, one picture.’
I’ve felt the Capra magic with his masterpiece It’s a Wonderful Life. Sobered by the war years, Capra dropped his fuzzy politics for a study of personal happiness, and created something genuinely moving. Capra’s earlier It Happened One Night is a marvelous non-issue show. But starting with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town the filmmaker decided that it was his duty to tackle more important themes. His next four films, the big hits, trace an escalating arc of political hysteria. The Best Picture winner You Can’t Take It with You is still light entertainment, but it changes the original Broadway play to make an Important statement about wealth and power in America.
This adaptation of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Pulitzer Prize winning play is big-time ’30s filmmaking, by Hollywood’s hottest director. It’s about a carefree family that has dropped out of the absurdities of modern life. Sentimental widower Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) long ago quit working, because he wasn’t having fun. He presides over a household of kooks and individualists. His son-in-law makes fireworks in the basement. Daughter Penny (Spring Byington) writes plays because a typewriter was mistakenly delivered to the house one day. Granddaughter Essie (fifteen year-old Ann Miller) is an untalented but energetic dancer married to a student (Dub Taylor) who plays the xylophone. Hangers-on include the dour Russian freeloader Boris Kolenkhov (Mischa Auer) and a budding inventor of novelties named Poppins (Donald Meek) who accepts Grandpa’s invitation to move in. A second granddaughter Alice (Jean Arthur) is secretly engaged to Tony Kirby (James Stewart), the son of New York’s most ruthless financial wolf, Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold). There’s bound to be trouble when Tony’s stuffy folks meet the Vanderhofs: Grandpa’s house is all that stands in the way of Kirby closing a monstrous deal to raze the neighborhood and construct a gigantic munitions factory.
Buoyant performances and Frank Capra’s nearly magical direction make You Can’t Take it With You a delight. Jean Arthur was the ‘veteran’ star and James Stewart the newcomer, and together they are charming beyond words. Their censor-proof introductory scene has Alice answering the phone without using her hands, laying her head on a desk in a way that suggests sex play. The scene is so romantic that the sweethearts’ threatened separation in the third act generates real anxiety. The best screwball comedy moments are Capra and Riskin’s inventions. They pull magical little scenes out of a hat, like the fun dance Tony and Alice perform in Central Park, with a pack of kids that might be escapees from the Our Gang comedies that Frank Capra once helped write.
There’s nothing tricky about Capra’s technique, and the feelings he communicates are honest and direct. Everything good about You Can’t Take it With You is right on the surface. Capra has an eye for the effective ‘bit’ that will bring out the maximum from a script. He occasionally overstates something, or allows an actor to put one too many ‘buttons’ on a scene. But viewers won’t complain. When in top form, Capra has a keen sense for the heartstring of the ‘average American,’ something that may actually have existed in the homogenized consensus culture of the 1930s. [ Steven Spielberg directs as if it still exists ]. Many details (like a pet crow) and situations (like the public collection of money for a beloved friend) in Take It with You were carried over for It’s a Wonderful Life, including the aphorism about the love of friends being the only lasting value.
The play underwent some telling changes on the way to the screen. The satire about communists and anarchists is reduced to a comedy footnote. The Vanderhofs are arrested for Commie propaganda and maintaining a bomb factory in their basement, but by the time they reach court those charges have been forgotten. Instead, the main conflict becomes a standard Capra diatribe about lifestyle philosophies, the credo of a noble dreamer proving superior to those of an unhappy capitalist. Everything is exaggerated. Granpa Vanderhof talks about being ‘a lily of the field,’ and we wonder how he supports the eight or nine people living under his roof. Anthony P. Kirby can’t just be rich, with a rich man’s opinions; he’s now a war profiteer. But the story holds him accountable only for threatening to tear down a happy neighborhood. We can tell that this is a 1930s movie when Kirby is thrown into a drunk tank. When someone identifies him as a banker, sixty jailbirds turn Kirby’s way with hate in their eyes.
Grandpa Vanderhof’s lightweight philosophy is presented as Great Wisdom. He dismisses the proliferation of ‘isms’ in modern life — socialism, fascism, etc.. He believes everyone should do what they wish, that they should quit jobs if they don’t like them. He doesn’t pay taxes. Grandpa isn’t a religious extremist, but when he runs out of half-baked libertarian-isms, he falls back on Bible quotes. He’s really just an anti-government jerk who opposes ‘silly’ laws that prohibit things like making fireworks in residential neighborhoods, or that expect citizens to help pay for the infrastructure, public services, national defense, etcetera. If the movie is dated, it’s that (the play’s?) philosophical argument is pure baloney.
Capra knows directs his ensemble so that we like everybody he likes, and he steers our every emotional turn. But from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town forward, the separation between star players and support is exaggerated in a very dated way. The members of the Vanderhof clan are variously funny, sweet and harmless, but without exception we’re meant to feel superior to them. The inventor Poppins is unprepossessing to a fault. The newlyweds Ed and Essie were surely invented to add music and movement to the play’s static scenes. They fill the need for silly comedy relief, to the degree that the family’s black handyman Donald (Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson) is played mostly straight. All the residents in Chez Vanderhof – Penny, the inventors downstairs — are partial-personality child-people.
Frank Capra packs the margins of his movies with ordinary folk, but he really doesn’t like or trust them much. The Vanderhof neighbors are typical Capra ‘little people.’ Without a brain between them, they rush around looking for leadership. They then trust Grandpa when he assures them that he’ll stop their evictions by refusing to sell his house to Kirby. This legion of good folk rushes to the courthouse at midnight to contribute pennies to Vanderhoff’s defense, fulfilling their function to provide the film with the patented rush of ‘Capra goodwill.’ After all that, our paragon Grandpa Vanderhof sells his house anyway. That he breaks his promise never becomes an issue. Note that Vanderhof never invites any of these neighbors into his house. That might be a good idea. The blonde neighbor who shouts vindictively at Kirby in the courtroom scene has the wild eye of a psycho.
Edward Arnold’s sensitive performance as Mr. Kirby dominates the movie’s third act, starting with his dumbstruck reaction when Vanderhof’s neighbors come to his rescue in the courtroom. Arnold specialized in dynamic but flawed tycoons, as in his best film, Hawks and Wyler’s superb Come and Get It. Arnold would later play a Fascist demagogue in Capra’s overcooked batch of bad politics, Meet John Doe. This film’s Mr. Anthony Kirby is that mythical man of industry that persists in pop culture, the Daddy Warbucks who steers the economy with his business leadership, yet deep down inside is just a hurt little boy tragically unaware that (sniff) people don’t love him. Kirby is pitched as a brainy whiz who doesn’t realize that he’s losing the love of his son. Naturally, he needs harmonica lessons to straighten him out.
Grandpa Vanderhof reserves the right to aggressively impose his enlightened philosophy on others, and he gets to say the last word on every subject. He tells the haughty Anthony Kirby to his face that his values are worthless. In the end we see the Kirbys being reprogrammed at Vanderhof’s dinner table, whether they like it or not. Grandpa jokes right to her face that she’s coming around to being their kind of person, and Kolenkhov slaps Mrs. Kirby on the back to make her pay attention. I think You Can’t Take It with You is a marvelously well directed and acted entertainment. It’s probably the least offensive film of Capra’s ‘political’ quartet, yet my reactions to are mixed at best. The great director totally redeemed himself nine years later with his fantasy It’s a Wonderful Life. That darker postwar vision of domestic struggle doesn’t have to play games with Kaufman and Hart’s tricky ‘isms.’
I remember being completely charmed by You Can’t Take it With You when I saw it for the first time at UCLA. Jean Arthur is luminous, and Stewart seems to have based his entire ‘aw shucks’ nice guy screen persona on this one role. Edward Arnold has a dozen delightfully perfect moments, as when he quietly gloats at the lampooning of his wife’s belief in spiritualism. And then there’s H.B. Warner’s powerful scene, crashing into Kirby’s boardroom like an avenging angel. But I’m bothered by the film’s strange contradictions and unexpected non-democratic ideas. If Grandpa Vanderhof was in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, he’d suggest that the workers and the rulers iron out their differences by playing harmonicas.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray + Digital HD of You Can’t Take It with You is a good encoding of a movie for which acceptable source elements were simply not to be had. I slammed the early DVD release, which had a terrible picture and bad sound, because I expected it to look as good as the pristine 35mm print that lecturer Bob Epstein screened for us back at UCLA. Apparently that print was screened to death, and Columbia had next to nothing in the vault. According to Grover Crisp, that was the case only ten years after its first release! Sony must have put its best resources to work on a digital restoration, for the result is a more than acceptable, and often glossy, B&W HD image. The granularity is often a bit high but only an occasional shot is slightly soft. The audio is now uniformly excellent. I’d say this is a major rescue of an important picture.
The disc has an older commentary by Capra’s son Frank Capra, Jr., and a featurette of the same vintage also hosted by Capra. They’re detailed, informative and wholly celebratory in nature. Jeremy Arnold’s entertaining ten-page essay in the illustrated souvenir book is a well-organized rundown on the stars, the director, the studio politics, the adaptation of the stage play and the film’s enthusiastic public reception. Jeremy even mentions that amid You Can’t Take It with You’s myriad critical accolades were a few critics with reservations. But who listens to the complaints of a maladjusted reviewer with an axe to grind?
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On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
You Can’t Take It with You Blu-ray + Digital HD
Supplements: Frank Capra Jr. commentary and featurette; booklet essay by Jeremy Arnold
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Book style holder with souvenir book
Reviewed: December 10, 2015
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson