You Can’t Take It with You (1938, Frank Capra)
George Kaufman and Moss Hart’s play You Can’t Take It with You is considered a minor American classic — the winner of a Pulitzer in 1937 — but given its simple-minded, fatally privileged worldview, it seems that the intervening decades have robbed us of the ability to see or understand why. Benignly wacky and goofy in the vein of Mary Chase’s Harvey (also adapted into a film starring Jimmy Stewart), it’s the grown-up equivalent of a pathetically angsty teenage rant against a lopsided notion of “class.” Yet in the hands of director Frank Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin, something improbable and slightly magic happens when the play’s opened up. Among a number of other things, it reveals a touch of something real and delicately human. The film doesn’t entirely work, but to call it a massive elevation of poor material is putting it mildly.
Yet simultaneously, it’s easy to see why Capra was attracted to the play; its better elements are his stock in trade — the witty and intimate, often lyrical dialogue and (more than anything) the startlingly direct and believable character relationships. At the center of You Can’t Take It with You is a boy and girl, really a man and woman but treated as if they’re much younger, whose mutual adoration drives the coalescing of events into a sitcom-anticipating comedy of semi-errors. The boy, Tony, looks deeply into the eyes of Alice Sycamore and you could lose your breath from the command they have of one another, the mutual purposefulness of their movements. It’s a gut-level love, a thing taking hold of them.
Tony is alienated and misunderstood et cetera by his wealthy mogul family who are eager for him to follow in a host of footsteps. He’s already “vice president of the company,” of course, and Alice is his secretary — a boon of a career in a family that doesn’t seem to see much worth in working for a living. The central flaw of the play and film is that there’s no balance whatsoever in characterization. Alice’s family are strongly written and (mostly) felt but they are also groan-inducingly idealized, extricated thoroughly from the real world, and this reinforces the notion that in their happy oblivion they resemble the excesses of the very rich just as much as the Kirbys — Tony’s family — who, it must be said, are shown to contribute something non-frivolous and non-decadent to society but are horrendously underwritten, as pure stereotypes, which is less forgivable in an ensemble piece that it would be if this had been a conventional romantic comedy. Anthony Kirby stumbles through the film in search of antacids while his wife does her best to look constantly mortified by the sniveling uselessness of virtually every person, object or event she encounters.
At the center of the Sycamore clan, though, is community beacon Martin Vanderhof, known to everyone in and out of the family as Grandpa. After what we’re told is a great deal of soul searching, Martin decided he wasn’t having enough fun, and he began to bring along a house full of eccentrics into a life of laying about and the 1930s equivalent of earning all your money from CafePress. One Ron Paul-esque rant about taxation notwithstanding, he’s mostly a lovable figure and, unlike most wise-old-owl characters, turns out largely to be a stand-in for the audience when his reaction to the identity of the boy courting Alice — the son of a mogul (that’s Anthony) trying to buy the Vanderhof house for nefarious monopolizing purposes — is not disapproval or rage or terror but chuckling at how funny and hairy this is going to get. And it does, of course, leading somehow to both the most awkward frankfurter dinner in history, a ginormous fireworks display, an evening in jail, and night court with the press in attendance. Of course, everyone (except Mrs. Kirby) learns their lesson about love and emotional freedom and it’s all rather pat.
But really, there is something moving about the purity of the film’s message, in fact more so than in most of Capra’s output — which generally tends to be more complex than credited. Indeed, though, you can start to wonder about your preconceptions a bit as you witness the purity and joy of candy-making, and becoming a playwright just because you ended up with a typewriter. What Martin’s finally built is a totem of freedom and nonconformity, an oblique kind of American ideal — a family that doesn’t question one another’s motives and survives on mutual respect and admiration, with everyone doing precisely what they like in a frayed, flawed house that seems to both come apart and burst outward with beauty and kindness. They’re disarming because they’re a connection for most of us with childhood — specifically the batty madhouses of children’s books with dancing in the hallways, strange old men making toys and masks, and fireworks exploding in the basement. Gently and steadfastly, it’s an embodiment of love, in the most direct and undiluted sense. The unity in these hearts could make you tear up a little, not least because virtually none of us will ever experience this with our own families… yet it seems so oddly attainable and present.
As much as the director does to translate all this onto celluloid, there’s some weakness in the transition; until the final half-hour (the movie’s bizarrely overlong, clocking in at over two hours), the opened-up scenes work decently enough, but the rest of the film struggles like so many other play adaptations with its stagebound appearance. Fortunately, the central three actors are aware of this limitation and operate their performances on a toned-down basis that adds to the strangely lifelike nature of the film. Stewart, young and hotheaded, was almost never better outside of his Hitchcock collaborations; he’s more feasible as a wily romantic here than in It’s a Wonderful Life, fine as that role is. The lovely Jean Arthur embodies her Alice with independence of spirit inherited clearly from her grandfather, injecting a great deal of individuality into a somewhat weakly written part (outside of her scenes alone with Stewart, with outright sear with genuine humor and restrained eroticism). Arthur would later be the highlight of Capra’s brilliant Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; in some ways this feels like a dry run for her performance there. Her best moments of all, indeed, are her tearful rebuffings of Tony when he ruins her big plans to make a good impression on his parents, then again when she ditches him in court — it’s really a copout of the material that there then must be a dull and neat Hollywood solution that has her suddenly deciding to take it seriously when Tony’s father deems her worthy of his consideration. The patriarchy wins, she doesn’t protest, and fuck that — but in the process, Arthur reveals something dark and deep in her soul that’s undeniably tragic and beautiful. Again, see Mr. Smith for more of this.
But Lionel Barrymore offers the most affecting major performance in the film. Compulsively and contagiously laid-back and casual, he has no trouble whatsoever wrapping himself around some odd dialogue and selling both the warmth of his emotions, which really represent the play as a whole that chooses him as its mouthpiece, and the absurdity of the situations around him. As noted, the class commentary in the film is horseshit, and so is the nearly nonexistent political subtext, despite attempts to iron it out, but the way Barrymore works through all this is sublime. There’s a telling moment toward the end when at last he breaks his carefully controlled mold and howls out in full angry force at Mr. Kirby, giving him a good old talking-to — and then, in classic gentle fashion, instantly regretting it and apologizing. Almost all in the same breath. It’s beautiful, and real.
Between this film, It Happened One Night, and Mr. Smith alone, it’s easy to detect why Frank Capra left such a mark on the cinema of the ’30s and was arguably the most celebrated director of the time. Columbia loved him because his movies were cheap but popular and prestigious. We love him seventy-odd years later because of his humanism — the same eye cast that loved all of the people his camera fell upon in It Happened One Night regards his romantic leads, his Grandpa, and all of the side characters here with no traces of condescension that weren’t inherited from the source material. (The portrayal of the two black characters is, as usual in films of this era, troublesome, even though Lillian Yarbo’s turn as Rheba is truly wonderful and charming.) In a time of international pregnancy and terror, Capra brings his trademark incisive joy to the young lovers that provide us with that bravura fireworks climax and a staid play becomes, for a little while, a screwball comedy — all without sacrificing the respect for his characters and the strange beauty of life that made him great. That ironically placed “Home, Sweet Home” sign that keeps falling only to be promptly restored? That’s Frank Capra’s view of the world.