By Tom Kapr
As part of my Year of Movies, during the month of February I will be focusing on past Academy Award-winning films, facilitated in large part by Turner Classic Movies and their annual 31 Days of Oscar marathon, in which they air nothing but Academy Award nominees and winners every hour of every day for 31 days, leading up to and eventually eclipsing the 83rd Annual Academy Awards on February 27. Throughout the month of February, I will be posting short articles on films that have won Academy Awards in past years, most of which I will not have seen before. So you can expect me, by the end of the month, to be even more of the classic film snob of the Incidental Dog crew than I already am. (I’m sure the other guys will love it.)
You Can’t Take It With You (1938)
A few weeks ago, I lambasted a beloved Frank Capra film, so it seems only fair I publish a review of You Can’t Take It With You to restore balance to the force. Much less groan-inducingly outdated or desperately sincere than Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or It’s a Wonderful Life, You Can’t Take It With You may be Capra’s best film.
Written by Robert Riskin (who also wrote the screenplay for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) based upon the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, You Can’t Take It With You is a story about two families. The Vanderhof/Sycamore family are a middle-class bunch of eccentrics, much loved by their neighbors. The Kirby family are affluent bankers; they aren’t much liked by the neighborhood, and their plans to tear down the old neighborhood for the bakers’ profit don’t make things any better. Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) works as secretary to Tony Kirby (James Stewart), who falls in love with her, setting their extremely diametric families on a collision course. Subversive enough to keep from being maudlin and emotionally grounded enough to keep from being overly wacky, the film is both a heartfelt drama and one of the funniest romantic comedies I’ve ever seen. I laughed out loud several times, which I don’t usually do when I watch a film alone.
Jean Arthur and James Stewart have wonderful chemistry, which would come in handy a few years later when they again would co-star together in Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Everybody in the cast is pitch-perfect: Spring Byington and Samuel S. Hinds as Alice’s childlike parents; a young and beautiful pre-fame Ann Miller as their second daughter who is (what else) an aspiring dancer; Mischa Auer as her very Russian dance instructor, who stops by as often for dinner as for dance lessons; Donald Meek as a bank teller and fledgling toymaker; Mary Forbes as Tony’s uppity ice queen of a mother. However, veteran actors Lionel Barrymore and Edward Arnold are the real stand-outs as the patriarchs of the Vanderhof and Kirby families, respectively. Barrymore especially carries the film, but as the two families slowly converge on each other, Arnold becomes just as much of an on-screen presence. Their scenes together are magnificent.
If I have one quibble about this film or its casting, it regards Lillian Yarbo and Eddie Anderson. A couple of African-American actors, Yarbo of course plays the Vanderhofs’ maid. (Anderson plays her fiancé.) Nobody in the family ever looks down on either of the two, and it is apparent that their characters have a deep affection for this eccentric family and vice versa; and Anderson’s character waits on the family not out of obligation to them but because he loves his fiancée. Taking everything into consideration, there is nothing really egregious about their place in the film; still, it is racial stereotyping, a product of a time when blacks were still seen as inferior to whites, when black characters in films were almost always in a position of servitude toward whites. Yarbo and Anderson’s characters seem as much a part of this eccentric family as any other member of the ragtag household, but still, they’re a black couple serving a white family. Regadrless, I do love this film, and both Yarbo and Anderson are as much a reason as any of the rest of the supporting players.
You Can’t Take It With You was honored by the Academy as Best Picture of 1938, as was Frank Capra as Best Director. Whether or not it deserves it is up for debate, considering it was up against such heavy hitters as the Errol Flynn swashbuckler (and another favorite of mine) The Adventures of Robin Hood, Jean Renoir’s war classic Le grande illusion, and the film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. But it was certainly much more deserving of its honors than was Mr. Deeds two years earlier.
Spring Byington received a nomination for her supporting role, which is good, though I’m surprised neither Lionel Barrymore nor Edward Albert were nominated for their roles. The film’s four other nominations were for Joseph Walker’s cinematography, Gene Havlick’s film editing, John P. Livadary’s sound recording, and Riskin’s wonderful screenplay, which lost to Pygmalion.
Learn more about You Can’t Take It With You at the Internet Movie Database.