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Refreshing the cinematic palette
by Asa Butcher
2008-03-17 09:25:05
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You Can't Take It with You
Directed by Frank Capra
Columbia Pictures, 1938

When you think of joint ventures between director Frank Capra and actor James Stewart the first film you usually pick is It's a Wonderful Life (1946), but that was actually their third and final collaboration. The second Stewart-Capra collaboration was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and the first, which is the focus of my review today, was You Can't Take It with You (1938).

1938 - 70 years ago, you know - offered some cinematic gems, including Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood, James Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces, Hepburn and Tracy in Bringing Up Baby and Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, each of which are still adored by fans today. However, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences deemed You Can't Take It with You to be the Best Picture of 1938 and awarded it so at the 11th Academy Awards, plus they bestowed Capra with his third and final Oscar for Best Director.

Only John Ford, with four Best Director wins, won more than Capra, while William Wyler also scored a hat-trick, but Capra has the prestige of taking all three within a five year period (It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) and I can't believe he didn't win more. Capra is among my top three favourite directors, so you can probably guess that this review will favour positive adjectives and could descend into hero worship by the final paragraph.

You Can't Take It with You was based on a George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's Pulitzer Prize-winning comedic three act play that was still in theatres when the film was released and elements of the play can be spotted in Robert Riskin's nominated screenplay, especially in the low number of dramatic scene changes. One of the attractions of returning to classic cinema (i.e. before WW2) is its ability to refresh the cinematic palette with its simple stories in black and white, also bereft of CGI and blockbuster status.

The story is a classic tale of lifestyles clashing, with the eccentric Sycamore family and pompous Kirbys being thrown together through the engagement of Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) to Tony Kirby (James Stewart). It is the eccentric Sycamore philosophy that has the most to teach us, even in the 21st century, and they slowly bestow their wisdom on the wealthy Kirbys.

When I say 'they' really I mean Alice's grandfather Martin Vanderhof, played by Lionel Barrymore, the brother of actor John Barrymore and great uncle of Drew Barrymore. You may recognise Barrymore from his role as the nasty Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life (1946), but in You Can't Take It with You he is a lovable grandfather that hobbles around on crutches because, "One of my granddaughters dared me to slide down the banister." Actually, Barrymore had lost the use of his legs to crippling arthritis and a hip injury and needed injections every hour to help relieve the pain.

Barrymore's character is the head of the house in the film and is the one Alice approaches for advice and comfort, which makes you forget the fact that her parents also live in the same house. Spring Byington received a nomination for Best Supporting Actress, yet I really couldn't tell you which character she played since the occupants of the house were just pleasant distractions. I guess it was the same for the Kirby family, excluding the formidable James Stewart of course. Stewart looks so young and fresh in the film and was the perfect choice to play the part of Tony Kirby, the eccentric member of the Kirbys, opposite the Alice, the only sensible member of the Sycamores.

You Can't Take It with You is a classic of the 1930s, whose message of the evil of money over friendship is still valid in today's society. I guess the only way to end this review, apart from more words of praise for Mr. Capra, is to end with a pearl of wisdom from Lionel Barrymore's Grandpa Vanderhoff:

"Maybe it'll stop you trying to be so desperate about making more money than you can ever use? You can't take it with you, Mr. Kirby. So what good is it? As near as I can see, the only thing you can take with you is the love of your friends."

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Sand2008-03-17 19:58:32
I remember seeing and being delighted with "You Can't Take it With You" when it was first shown but the message was not so much a battle between money and friendship but an understanding the we each have a very limited time on Earth and to spend that valuable and non-renewable time conforming to the financial mores of a society devoted to commercial success was a tragedy of monstrous proportions. Each of the seemingly crazy members of the bohemian family was intensely involved with a very personal project from shooting fireworks up the chimney to creating delightful toys like a mechanical bunny that popped up out of an egg. It was devoted, as was some of the spirit of the 60´s, to exploring and enjoying life while you still had it, a comedy of values.

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