Friday, February 20, 2009

Target #260: You Can't Take It with You (1938, Frank Capra)

TSPDT placing: #992
Directed by: Frank Capra
Written by: George S. Kaufman (play), Moss Hart (play), Robert Riskin (screenplay)

I'd forgotten how therapeutic a bit of Capra-corn could be. I sat down to a pleasant romantic comedy about two lovers overcoming their class differences, but ended the film practically in tears – tears of joy, as only Frank Capra could produce. You Can't Take It with You (1938) was the first of the director's collaborations with Jimmy Stewart. However, the heart of the film actually centres around another familiar Capra face, Lionel Barrymore – who, never to be forced into retirement by his painful arthritis, acts the entire film on crutches. Forget the dastardly Mr. H.F. Potter, his Martin Vanderhof is the "richest" man in town, not because he has very much money, but because his kindness and sense of community has made him more friends than he can count {this is a theme that Capra used regularly; see Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946)}. But the daughter (Jean Arthur) in the hopelessly-eccentric Vanderhof family has fallen in love with the son (Stewart) of a rich banker (Edward Arnold), incidentally the poorest man in town.

An evening with the Vanderhofs is something akin to a Marx Brothers movie, with each character doing their own thing without regard for what outsiders might think. While some family members test fireworks in the basement, sister Essie (Ann Miller) practices her ballet to the xylophone music of her husband (Samuel S. Hinds), as her uptight Russian instructor Boris (Mischa Auer) complains that everything "stinks." Mother Penny (Spring Byington) attempts to finish writing a play, and Alice (Jean Arthur) slides down the staircase banister. With twelve activities happening at once, it's the farce of Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) without those troublesome murders. But behind all this chaos is the unmistakable unity of a close-knit family, and (as in many Capra films) it only takes a recognisable musical tune to bring together the Vanderhofs – and the snobbish Kirbys – for a collective performance that is genuinely charming in its sincerity. At least you can always be assured that a Frank Capra film will always leave you feeling good about yourself, the world, and the people in it.

Alongside the compassionate performances of Barrymore and Edward Arnold, enjoyable performances are also given by James Stewart and Jean Arthur, such that they repeated their love affair in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). You Can't Take It with You was adapted by Capra-regular Robert Riskin from a successful play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. I found it interesting that the screenplay bore what appeared to be a socialist slant, with Martin Vanderhof decidedly rejecting capitalist labour in favour of performing his preferred tasks for a minimum wage. This approach, we are shown, leaves one happier and assists the wellbeing of the entire community. I'm not so certain, however, of Vanderhof's insistence on not paying income tax, on the basis that he's not getting anything back from the government – this doesn't seem socialist, nor does it sound particularly "American," either. Even so, everybody can sympathise with the notion that money isn't everything, and that a single kindhearted gesture can go much further than a thousand dollar bills.

Currently my #2 film of 1938:
1) Angels with Dirty Faces (Michael Curtiz)
2) You Can’t Take It with You (Frank Capra)
3) The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz, William Keighley)


Anonymous said...

"At least you can always be assured that a Frank Capra film will always leave you feeling good about yourself, the world, and the people in it."

Indeed. I love Lionel Barrymore in You Can't Take it With You. I recently wrote that while many consider Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or It's a Wonderful Life the best of Capra's human interest films, I feel like You Can't Take it With You is the quintessential Capra film, summing up every message his films had to say about life and society.

ackatsis said...

Awww, I'm finding it hard to decide between Capra's films. At the moment the list looks like:

1) It’s A Wonderful Life
2) Arsenic and Old Lace
3) Mr. Smith Goes To Washington
4) You Can’t Take It with You
5) It Happened One Night
6) Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

The first three are in my all-time top 100, and #4 is not far behind.
Any more Capra-corn you can recommend me?

Anonymous said...

Platinum Blonde is one of his early films with the great actor who died too soon, Robert Williams (and of course, Jean Harlow). Meet John Doe is good for Cooper's performance, but for me it sort of gets lost in the shuffle with the rest of Capra's films. And Pocketful of Miracles is a fun movie, definitely worth the watch for the great cast. Those are actually the only other three I've seen in addition to your list.

Jump_Raven said...

Hey, you finally got to one that I haven't seen yet. I'm a big fan of Capra too. 9/10, that's a lot coming from you. I think TCM played it this week or last. You've got me excited to see it.

Thanks again for the shorts list. I have been watching some of them and it's like discovering a whole new world of film.

ackatsis said...

If you're a big fan of Capra, then I can't envision any possible situation in which you won't enjoy this one!

I had a big short films night tonight, so expect some interesting additions to "Short Cuts" in the next few days (well, by "big" I only mean five shorts, but those reviews are rather time-consuming!)

Jump_Raven said...

Speaking of Capra-corn, if you haven't seen Slumdog Millionaire, you should because the story is quintessential Capra.

I don't know if you have already, but you can skip most of the Kenneth Anger films on the list. Most of them are frustrating experimental exercises. The only one worth your time is Scorpio Rising which I really liked. Check out the Santiago Alvarez films. I watched LBJ and Now, they are both great Cuban propaganda.

Don't keep me waiting too long for the short reviews. I'm excited.

Bruce Huffman said...

I may be wrong, but I think it was a very young Dub Taylor who played Essie's xylophone-playing husband.