Sunday, December 15, 2013

You Can't Take It with You (1938)

Director: Frank Capra                                  Writer: Robert Riskin
Film Score: Dmitri Tiomkin                          Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Starring: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore and Edward Arnold

I’m not usually taken in by zany personalities, especially entire families of them, but I found You Can’t Take It with You absolutely charming. Something of a practice run before his artistic triumph in It’s a Wonderful Life, and much more engaging than the non-stop frenetics of Arsenic and Old Lace, Frank Capra’s screen adaptation of the George S. Kaufman play was deservingly awarded the best picture and best director Oscars that year by the Motion Picture Academy. The picture it paints of the Sycamore family is simply marvelous. They are the most accepting, loving, generous people that I can ever remember seeing onscreen. But they aren’t phony and they aren’t sentimental and they aren’t cloying. They simply do what they want and let the world take them as they want, with no apologies. This is a tremendous film.

The story opens on Wall Street, with bank financier Edward Arnold just coming back from Washington D.C. in preparation of closing a big deal. His son, James Stewart, vice president of the company, is bored with the details. He’s much more interested in his beautiful secretary, Jean Arthur. Meanwhile, Arthur’s grandfather, Lionel Barrymore, is being pressured by Arnold’s company to sell his house, but refuses, and even manages to take one of Arnold’s accountants, Donald Meek, with him back home. At home Barrymore’s daughter-in-law writes plays while his son builds fireworks in the basement. His other granddaughter dances the ballet while her husband plays the vibraphone. And in the midst of this craziness Arthur has fallen in love with Stewart and the inevitable meeting of the two families is the highpoint of the film. From there Albert and his wife are pulled into a Capraesque farce that is as enjoyable as it is predictable, with neither aspect diminishing the other

I’m tempted to say that this is Capra’s best film, though the obvious maturity of It’s a Wonderful Life can’t really be bested. And though this is the sort of thing that critics began to call Capra-corn, there is something distinctly American, a celebration of the things that we were supposed to have held dear and somehow forgot, that makes these films much more important than the derogatory label suggests. Coming to this film as I did after the director’s Christmas piece is a little eerie. Actors like H.B. Warner, Samuel S. Hinds and Charles Lane would appear in the later film, and even certain scenes are repeated later, such as when the friends of Barrymore pass the hat in court to pay his fine. About the only thing missing is Clarence the angel. Even with all of that, however, this is a film that stands very much on its own.

Jimmy Stewart and Lionel Barrymore are at the center of the film, just as they are in It’s a Wonderful Life, but of course their roles are very different. Barrymore has unfortunately been remembered primarily for his brilliant portrayal of the amoral Mr. Potter, but in many of his films, from Grand Hotel to Key Largo, he plays the protagonist with a lot of charm. Stewart seems almost callow by comparison to his later role, but he still brings so much personality to the screen that it’s forgivable, and in truth his character doesn’t call for more. The post-war bitterness that informs his character in the Christmas film has no place here. As far as Edward Arnold, there is a bit of Scrooge to his character, learning to place the demands of his heart over that of his pocketbook, a timeless theme that would be used much later in films like Pretty Woman and The Family Man. Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You is a masterpiece that, thankfully in this case, was recognized as such at the time and remains a must-see film for every American.

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