Sunday, November 28, 2010



Four years after he had won his first best picture Oscar with IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, director Frank Capra won again for his adaptation of George Kaufman and Moss Hart's Pulitzer Prize winning play YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU.  A lot had happened to him in those years: he had become one of the few Hollywood directors to have his name above the title of his films, and he was also president of both the Academy itself and the director's guild.
He first saw the play at its opening in New York while he was there for the debut of his 1937 film LOST HORIZON, and he immediately saw its potential as his next cinematic project, eventually persuading Columbia studio head Harry Cohn to shell out two hundred thousand dollars (a then enormous sum) for the rights.  His instincts were correct, as the film eventually turned in a healthy profit on its total budget of over one and half million dollars.
The play told the sweet tale of the Vanderhoffs, a large family of eccentrics, run by a lovable patriarchal grandfather, who encourages the family to do what they love, not what they have to do, which leads them to try play writing, candy making, dancing, and firework manufacturing, among other things. When the most sane member of the family, his young granddaughter,  Alice, falls in love, she is worried that her boyfriend's family won't like hers, especially since her boyfriend's father is a prominent banker.  At first she is proven correct, as her grandfather and the banker clash, but,  after some crazy events, inevitably, the banker comes to see the wisdom of her grandfather's ways. 
Capra and his collaborator, screenwriter Robert Riskind (who had already written four films for him), made sure to open up the play, adding subplots, exterior scenes and greatly increasing the number of characters.  It also features crisp editing and many crowd scenes, so that it would be easy to forget its theatrical origins.  More importantly, the film is not just about the Vanderhoffs, but also about the community they live in; a real Capra trademark.  Interestingly, in one scene towards the end, when the Vanderhoffs have to pay a fee in court, all of their friends from the neighborhood pitch in to pay it for them, presaging the famous ending of Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE that came out eight years later.
While this is not my personal favorite Capra movie (that would be MEET JOHN DOE),  I still find this to  be charming, funny, and romantic; as in many of his films, its world view is often too naive, but I for one can't help be moved by his desire to believe in the basic goodness of the average person.  Indeed, in his auto biography (THE NAME ABOVE THE TITLE), Capra stated that he wanted the film to dramatize the simple idea of Love Thy Neighbor.
It certainly is a well cast film: with a joyful gleam in his eye, Lionel Barrymore is wonderful as Grandpa Vanderhoff, and he completely sells the many speeches, both funny and serious, that he has in the film (I particularly like his moving remembrance of his late wife).  Equally strong is Edward Arnold as Anothony Kirby, the banker, who's gruff demeanor and owl like appearance made him a formidable opponent to Barrymore. All of the minor roles are played  by various character actors (like the well named Donald Meek) or newcomers, like the fifteen year old Ann Miller as the constantly dancing Effie, and they all acquit themselves excellently.  And, perhaps most important of all, for his two romantic leads, Alice Sycamore and  Tony Kirby, Capra cast Jean Arthur and James Stewart.  Capra once described Arthur as having a "husky voice that broke into a thousand tinkling bells"; more importantly, she was the perfect ideal of the all American girl next door, and casting her was easy for Capra since he had worked with her before, wonderfully, in MEET JOHN DOE.  Jimmy Stewart, on the other hand, was new to Capra, but he immediately seemed to embody Capra's love of the  decent everyman, and they would go on to work together again in the classics: MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE.  One change Capra and Riskind made from the play was to add more scenes of romance between these two, and it certainly was the right decision.  (Does anyone shoot better scenes of moony young lovers talking than Capra does?).  Unfortunately, one sequence with the two lovebirds visiting a restaurant and inadvertently almost causing a riot is just silly slapstick; oddly, it resembles a similar scene from BRINGING UP BABY, released that same year.

Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur

The romance in the film tends to work better than the social comment, some of which is quite ridiculous; in a memorable scene Grandpa Vanderhoff argues with an IRS agent, claiming that he sees no reason to have to pay income tax.  Clearly, we are supposed to be on Grandpa's side here, but it seems absurd for him to assert that he shouldn't have to pay taxes if he doesn't like the way the money is spent(his character is supposed to be a patriot, so you'd think he'd know more about how the government works).  It's also a bit chilling to hear him criticize spending money on defense just three years before the Pearl Harbor bombing.
The film's comic highlight comes when Mr Kirby and his wife (Mary Forbes) agree to go to dinner at the Vanderhoffs, although neither of them are particularly excited about the interest their son is showing in Alice.  Unfortunately, they show up on the wrong night, and enter to see Alice's mother (Spring Byingtonwatch full eye of her crazy Russian dance instructor, Kolenkohf (Misha Auer).

Not what the Kirbys expected to see!

Things go from bad to worse, as the Kirbys sink into uncomfortable chairs and Klolenkohf tries out one of his old wrestling moves on Mr Kirby.   As things continue poorly, Tony admits to his father that he purposely invited them on the wrong night so that they could see how the Vanderhoffs really are, not how they would pretend to be when they knew they had company coming,  which angers his father even further.  But before the Kirbys can leave,  a disturbance involving an entire basement of fireworks shooting out into the street (An image that Capra stages wonderfully!)causes the entire household to be arrested.  While in jail, Mr Kirby is disgusted at having to be around poor people while waiting for his lawyers to bail him out, and he refers to his cellmates as "scum".  This leads Grandpa to rip into Kirby, calling him a failure as a man, a human being, and a father.  It's the only moment in the film where Barrymore raises his voice, and it he plays it for all that it's worth.  Unfortunately it also shows the stain of self righteousness that runs through many of Capra's films; it's never enough for the audience to see his lovable heroes defend their values, they have to announce those values at full volume.  And much of what is said are simple homilies that should be common sense to almost anyone: yes, having the love of friends and family is more important than a lot of money.  Does that really count as an earthshaking sentiment? That obvious tone is probably the film's greatest flaw; it isn't enough for Grandpa to dump on Kirby, he will later get a tongue lashing from Alice, from a co worker that he has financially ruined, and, inevitably, from his own son.  His  greed and avarice is fully on display without having other characters point it out to the audience, but Capra still feels he has to pile it on.  And, while I do enjoy the scenes at the end, when Mr Kirby, like Ebeneezer Scrooge, renounces his materialistic ways, it feels like it was a realization that was far too long coming.  I think a good twenty minutes could easily have been edited out of this film without hurting its message.


While I certainly enjoy this film more than Capra's first best picture winner, (IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, 1934) I don't think it holds up as well as some of his other films.  I think that the best picture of that year was the ground breaking Walt Disney classic, SNOW WHITE.  I also greatly enjoy Micheal Curtiz's two films that year: THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD and ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES.