Finding one's humanity in a zany, heartfelt celebration of the common man
“You Can’t Take It with You” is a heavenly comedy with a kick. At first glance it may seem like zany escapism, but any silliness or sentimentality is a cloak for deeper themes and philosophical questions. At its heart, this joyous film is a message that love can conquer all – even the most misguided transgressor. This screwball-ish comedy can still render heavy laughter, while its poignant themes remain relevant over eighty years later. In addition, it is a leading example of how the unsung power of the character actor can monumentally enhance and transform a film. Nominated for seven Academy Awards, “You Can’t Take It with You” was crowned 1938's Best Picture, and its director, Frank Capra, as that year's Best Director. One of my favorites as a kid, it still holds the power to move me to laughter and shed a tear or two every time I watch it.
Boy loves girl, but boy’s family doesn’t like her or her family. Sounds simple, right? Wrong. Though that’s the basic plot of “You Can’t Take It with You”, what makes this film standout is the delightfully messy, profound fun created by intermingling its wacky cast of characters. The boy is “Tony Kirby”, the newly elected Vice President of his father’s banking company. His father is ruthless banker and money-loving company head, “Anthony P. Kirby”, who is about to form the largest international monopoly in the world. “Tony’s” mother is reputation and status obsessed, uptight “Meriam Kirby”. Unlike his greedy, elitist parents, “Tony” is a dreamer and romantic, doing his obligatory job solely to continue a long line of “Kirby” bankers. He has fallen deeply in love with his secretary, “Alice Sycamore”, whose family is anything but rich or elite.
"Alice's" eccentric clan live in a large house headed by her grandfather, “Martin 'Grandpa' Vanderhof”, and consist of her mother “Penny” (writing a play because a typewriter was accidentally delivered to the house), her father “Paul” (who makes fireworks in the cellar), her sister “Essie” (who makes candy and studies ballet), “Essie’s” husband “Ed” (who plays the xylophone and loves to print things on his printing press), “Mr. DePinna” (who also makes fireworks), “Potap Kolenkhov” (“Essie’s” ballet teacher, who doesn’t live there but whose lessons happen to coincide with nightly dinner), and two servants, “Rheba” and “Donald” (who seem more part of the family than help). “Anthony Kirby’s” monopoly is being held up because of what someone calls “a silly little man with a silly little house”, who turns out to be none other than “Grandpa”. As “Tony” and “Alice” try to hold on to their relationship, their families clash and madcap fun and fireworks (literally and figuratively) ensue.
While the film is easily escapist fun, on a deeper level it is a tale of individuality and ideals about to be gobbled up and destroyed by greed. “Grandpa’s” house is filled with happy people who’ve left the rat race and are doing what they love. Even the mundane becomes fun, such as setting the dinner table while dancing en pointe, ringing a bell to make an announcement, or using an adorable kitten as a paperweight. It is an idealistic picture of paradise. By contrast, determined to get richer with his monopoly, “Anthony” exclaims he spends “ten thousand a year for doctors and I’m still taking this stuff”, as he sips his bicarbonate of soda for his chronically upset stomach. At one point “Grandpa” spills the message of the film, telling “Anthony” to stop trying to get richer: “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”. And “Kirby” has no friends and is about to lose his son.
Comedies that carry a message are incredibly difficult to turn into successful films that entertain, and there is only one director who managed to do this hit after hit after hit, and that’s Frank Capra. He once said in an interview, “Entertainment comes first. Without it, it’s very heavy and without it you can’t sell the American people anything”. Known as a director of American Populist films, Capra’s best loved works (including this one) explore themes of selflessness, underdogs overcoming corruption, and the dignity and importance of the individual. Capra’s films carry an intrinsic joy (even when dark) and are grounded on the belief that deep inside, all people are decent.
“You Can’t Take It With You” was based on a Pulitzer Prize winning 1936 play (of the same name) by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Capra enlisted Robert Riskin, his then screenwriter of choice, to help adapt it into a screenplay. They made alterations, adding and tweaking characters and plot points, and changed the third act. It paid off, for Riskin earned his fourth Best Screenplay Oscar nomination (the previous three also Capra films –"Lady for a Day", "It Happened One Night", and "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”). This was the ninth film on which they collaborated, and they worked together only once more ("Meet John Doe" in 1941) before having a personal falling-out. Capra’s 1951 film ”Here Comes the Groom”, was based on a story by Riskin, though he didn't write the screenplay.
Capra’s direction of “You Can’t Take It with You” is impeccable, as he fills shots with multitudes of characters, movement, and details, creating a unique world. Instead of using extensive close-ups, he reserves them for emphasis, opting instead to linger on two characters at once in important scenes, as when “Alice” and “Grandpa” talk about “Grandma”, or when “Tony" and “Alice” are on a park bench talking about life. Most other directors would intercut close-ups, but by showing a lengthy two-shot, he gives the audience an opportunity to witness the relationship, intimacy, and chemistry between two people, which becomes quite moving. It is quite brilliant directing, and Capra earned his third Best Director Academy Award for this film (previously winning for "It Happened One Night" and "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”). He was the most popular and successful Hollywood director of the 1930s and early 1940s, and this film was one of a long string of hits, many of which have become classics. Capra singlehandedly turned Columbia Pictures into an important studio, bringing prestige and money to what was previously a minor studio. You can read more about the illustrious career and life of Frank Capra in two previous posts, “It Happened One Night” and “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Please check them out.
Though “You Can’t Take It with You” is an ensemble piece, top billed is Jean Arthur as “Alice Sycamore”. One of Hollywood’s most talented actresses of the 1930s and 40s, she has somehow fallen from public radar and is rarely mentioned nowadays when people talk about classic stars. Arthur suffers from what I call “the Cary Grant syndrome”. Like Grant, because she’s so real in comedic and lightly dramatic roles, no one thinks she’s acting. But to be so emotionally authentic in these types of roles requires enormous talent, which Arthur has in spades. Unlike most other actors, she drinks in the words and emotions of her fellow players, listening to them as if her life depended on it. Listening is key to great acting, and Arthur does it perhaps better than anyone. Take the delightful scene when she first appears. “Tony” is holding her hands and the phone rings. Just watch how Arthur’s focus and emotions are caught between wanting to answer the phone and be with “Tony”. She then talks to “Rheba” on the phone, still reacting to “Tony”, and finally reacts to “Mrs. Kirby”, and all completely as if she were living the part. It is as good as acting gets.
Jean Arthur was a model in the early 1920s. Fox Film Studios noticed her and gave her a one-year contract, and her film debut came in the 1923 John Ford silent film, "Cameo Kirby". Lacking experience and being uncomfortable in front of the camera, she was fired from her second job (a lead role), and was regulated to comedy shorts (including a small role as a receptionist in Buster Keaton's classic, "Seven Chances"), and B-picture Westerns. By 1928 she began to get more exposure and some good reviews which lead to a contract at Paramount Pictures. When sound took over silents, people were hesitant to cast her due to her unique voice, which soon became an asset and eventually her trademark. Her first sound film was 1929's "The Canary Murder Case" starring William Powell. Though she did not personally get good reviews, Paramount did their best to push her towards stardom, having her pose for photographs, give interviews, and do publicity - all of which she hated. She had a slight breakthrough opposite Clara Bow in the 1929 film "The Saturday Night Kid", which also featured newcomer Jean Harlow. With Arthur's film career not quite taking off, she turned to the stage in 1930, and made her Broadway debut in 1932's "Foreign Affair”. She remained on Broadway though 1934 (while appearing in two films), and Broadway gave her confidence and training in the art of acting. She then returned to Hollywood and signed a five-year contract with Columbia Pictures in 1934. Cast as a tough working girl with a heart of gold in several comedies, she began to click with audiences and critics.
Capra saw footage from one of her films, and cast her in "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" in 1936. That film made her a top international star. As a star, she appeared in mostly romantic or screwball comedies and a few Westerns, including the classics "Easy Living", "Only Angels Have Wings", "The Talk of the Town", and a third Capra classic (also opposite James Stewart), "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington“. Capra later said Jean Arthur was his favorite actress. He loved her talent and nervous energy. In 1943 she starred in the wonderful George Stevens comedy, "The More the Merrier", for which she earned her only Best Actress Academy Award nomination. During her entire career, Arthur struggled with fame, massive stage fright (sometimes vomiting between scenes), and spells suffering from psychosomatic illnesses. An acutely private person, she didn’t attend parties, public events, or give interviews. Following in the retired Greta Garbo’s footsteps, she took over as Hollywood’s new recluse. Arthur was Columbia Pictures’ top movie star, and even so, when her contract with Columbia expired in 1944, she retired. She was lured back for two films – Billy Wilder's "A Foreign Affair" in 1948, and her final, the classic 1953 Western, "Shane". She made two television appearances – one on a 1965 episode of "Gunsmoke", and starred in her own short-lived TV series, "The Jean Arthur Show" in 1966.
At 50 years old, she found major success back on Broadway, playing the title role in Leonard Bernstein's 1950 version of "Peter Pan". It ran for 321 performances and Arthur said it was her favorite role. She planned on starring in a 1954 Broadway production of George Bernard Shaw's “Saint Joan", but suffered a nervous breakdown and left the play before it opened. In 1967 she starred in the Broadway show, "The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake", which closed during previews since she refused to go on. Arthur married twice: first to photographer Julian Anker which was annulled after one day; and a second seventeen year marriage to producer Frank Ross Jr. (who wrote "The More the Merrier”), ending in divorce. There are ample accounts that Arthur was bisexual or lesbian, and she lived the last decade of her life at her home in Carmel, California with Ellen Mastroianni. Jean Arthur died in 1991 at 90 years old.
Everyone in this film is superlative, and front and center is Lionel Barrymore who stars as “Grandpa Martin Vanderhof”. Barrymore’s heartfelt calmness, strength, and straightforwardness provoke thought in this otherwise outlandish comedy. “Grandpa” is the only character who has his two feet firmly planted on the ground. One of the great Barrymores (known as America’s Royal Family of actors), he was often regarded as the finest screen actor of his day. The way the words fly off his tongue are so genuine, I dare you to catch him acting. Watch how effortlessly he talks to “Alice” about his dead wife. Barrymore handles the scene with such underplayed ease, it's as if we're listening in on an actual chat. Barrymore delivers many of the film’s “messages”, such as when he tells “Penny” to write about ism-mania, “Communism, fascism, voodooism. Everybody’s got an ism these days…. nowadays they say ‘think the way I do or I’ll bomb the daylights out of you’”. He handles these heavy thoughts weightlessly while looking at his stamp collection. A combination of arthritis and the of breaking his hip in 1936 (and again in 1937) led Barrymore to immobility. For this film, Capra cleverly had it written into the script that “Grandpa” needs crutches because of sliding down the bannister on a dare by one of his granddaughters. It fits in the film exquisitely, as “Grandpa” says he always wanted to walk on crutches since he was a kid, furthering a point that quality of life is determined by how we look at things. Reportedly, Barrymore received hourly injections for pain during filming. After 1938, Lionel Barrymore is always seated in a film. You can read more about this amazing actor in my post on “It’s a Wonderful Life”.
Also starring is James Stewart who plays “Tony Kirby”. His everyman innocence and sincerity make the whole farcical situation believable. When he talks to “Alice” of his past dreams of discovering green energy (yes, green energy), there is a certifiable sense that here is a mournful, idealistic young man, and when he's with his parents one can feel a yielding child wanting to break free from their molds. Stewart’s chemistry with Arthur is astounding. The two are so at ease with one another and display so much mutual love and caring, one can’t help but root for them to end up together. Though James Stewart was a known actor by this point, he was still finding his way to stardom playing minor roles and second leads. Capra saw him in the 1937 film, “Navy Blue and Gold”, where he noticed a sensitivity he thought right for “Tony” and cast him in the role. “You Can’t Take It with You” was Stewart’s breakthrough. Capra proved to be pivotal for Stewart’s career, providing his lucky break with this film, full stardom, respect as an actor, and the first of five Academy Award nominations with Capra’s next film (1939’s "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”), and immortality with their third collaboration, the 1946 classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life” (opposite Barrymore). Capra honed Stewart’s small-town, honest Joe quality, which quickly became his persona on and off the screen. You can read more about his fabulous actor in my posts on “The Philadelphia Story” (for which he won his only Best Actor Oscar), and “It’s a Wonderful Life".
At the crux of “You Can’t Take It with You” is Edward Arnold as “Anthony P. Kirby”. We should hate this man (who someone describes as having “ice water in his veins”), but because Arnold makes him so human, we don’t. I love the scene in which “Penny” belittles “Mrs. Kirby’s” interest in occultism. Arnold’s reaction is subtle, real, and in that moment "Anthony" becomes human. Capra called “Anthony” the film’s "villain/hero", and Arnold excels at capturing both. His pivotal scene in the conference room before signing the merger contains perhaps the film’s longest single take, which begins when “Tony” enters, and ends when “Anthony” himself exits the room. As he sits there with his world falling apart, with no words or actions, Arnold shows this imposing mogul grappling with his own morals. It is a truly phenomenal performance, and his relationship with “Grandpa” becomes just as relevant as that that of “Tony” and “Alice”. Capra knew Arnold was the perfect actor for the role, and delayed production for two months until he was free to do the film.
Edward Arnold began on stage, making his professional debut while a teenager. At the same time, he began appearing in films as an extra, eventually getting small roles beginning with "The Misleading Lady" in 1916. After appearing in just shy of forty films in 1916 and 1917 alone, he turned to Broadway, making his Broadway debut in 1919's "She Would and She Did". More Broadway shows followed, along with a handful of films, and come 1932, he focused his career in Hollywood, appearing in films that include "I'm No Angel” and "Three on a Match”. He found movie stardom in 1935 as "Diamond Jim Brady” in the film, “Diamond Jim” (portraying the character again in the 1940 film "Lillian Russell“). Arnold appeared in well over 100 films, including "Easy Living”, "Johnny Eager", "Kismet", "Mrs. Parkington", "Take Me Out to the Ball Game", "Annie Get Your Gun", and his final film, "Miami Exposé” in 1956. He also appeared in two additional Capra films, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "Meet John Doe". Arnold also made a handful of television appearances starting in 1950. He was married three times, and his son Edward Arnold Jr. was also an actor. Edward Arnold died in 1956 at the age of 66.
Ann Miller plays “Essie Carmichael”, “Alice’s” dancing sister. It is fun to see Miller so early in her career, as she soon became one of the screen’s biggest movie musical stars, known for her long legs, beauty, and machine gun-tap dancing (able to do over a dozen taps within one second and over 500 taps per minute). Though her dance teacher in the film says "Confidentially, she stinks!”, with her tutus, pointe shoes, and somewhat graceful moves, “Essie” provides much of the film’s whimsy. Miller lied about her age, and no one realized she had just turned fifteen when filming began.
Texas-born Ann Miller began dancing when she was five years old as therapy for rickets. Her parents divorced when she was nine and she moved with her deaf mother to Los Angeles. Since she looked older than her age, with forged IDs she began dancing in nightclubs while very young. When she was thirteen, Lucille Ball spotted her dancing, which led to a film contract at RKO Studios, where again she told them she was eighteen years old. Her first film appearance was as a school girl in 1934's"Anne of Green Gables". By 1937, she was getting better supporting roles such as in "New Faces of 1937" and the classic, "Stage Door" where she played dancing partner to Ginger Rogers. "You Can't Take It with You" continued her supporting role trend, as did a part in the classic Marx Brothers film, "Room Service", also in 1938. The following year she did a very successful two-year stint in her Broadway debut, "George White's Scandals". Shortly after, she signed with Columbia and starred in a slew of B movie musicals. After a brief, unhappy marriage (her alcoholic husband threw her down a staircase while pregnant and she broke her back and lost the child), Miller turned to MGM in 1948, winning a role in the classic musical, “Easter Parade”, starring Fred Astaire and Judy Garland. Miller also signed with MGM, the movie musical capital of the world, becoming part of the famed Arthur Freed Unit (which I discuss in my post on “An American in Paris”). Now a full-fledged musical star, her energetic personality and astonishing dancing were put to great use (often as a wise-cracking second lead) in such classics as “On the Town”, and “Kiss Me Kate”. As splashy, extravagant musicals were losing their appeal in the mid 1950s, Miller didn't renew her contract and instead appeared on television, took to the stage touring, and replaced Angela Lansbury in "Mame" on Broadway. In 1979 Miller had a major comeback starring in the Broadway musical, "Sugar Babies", earning a Tony Award nomination. The show ran for 1029 performances on Broadway, after which Miller toured with it. Her last film appearance was in the 2001 David Lynch film, "Mulholland Dr.". She must have lived somewhere near me later in life, as I saw her several times in a long-gone neighborhood restaurant. I also met her very briefly, and she seemed like a sweet, no-nonsense character. She was married three times. Ann Miller died in 2004 at the age of 80.
Spring Byington plays “Penelope ‘Penny’ Sycamore”, mother of “Alice” and “Essie”. Byington’s ditzy, scatterbrained presence illuminates the film, and even with her brief screen time you can feel the warm heart for which she was known. Her performance earned her a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination (her only). An MGM contract player, she appeared in many classic films, often as skittish, motherly types. If you are watching the films on this blog, you previously saw her playing mother to Franchot Tone in a brief role in “Mutiny On the Bounty”, and you can read more about the life and career of this lovable actress in that film’s post.
If you’ve watched a lot of Hollywood studio era movies, you might notice that the depiction of the two Black servants in this film is quite unusual. Even though they play servants, they are refreshingly complete people and not the one-dimensional stereotypes almost exclusively seen at the time. This slightly more equal depiction of Blacks was not without its criticism, and the head of the Motion Picture Production Code, Joseph Breen (who answered to the Catholic Legion of Decency), raised concerns. In a letter to Columbia Studio head Harry Cohn, Breen wrote, "[When] showing the negro characters ‘Reba’ [sic] and ‘Donald’, care should be taken to avoid objection in Southern sections of this country where the showing of negroes in association with whites has sometimes been subjected to criticism by the public generally and to deletion by political censor boards. Such criticism has been based on the feeling that negroes in pictures have been shown on terms too familiar and of 'social equality.’” And we wonder why there is no social equality now?
“Donald”, was played by Eddie Anderson. Born to a minstrel performer and tightrope walker, Anderson began performing with his brother in vaudeville and eventually in clubs such as the Apollo and the Cotton Club. He worked as a comedian, and began appearing in bit parts in films beginning in 1932. With his gravelly voice, Anderson appeared on the very popular radio show, "The Jack Benny Program" in 1937 and was so popular as Benny's valet, "Rochester", he became a cast member, and the first Black person to have a regular role on a nationwide radio program. Known as Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, he was one of America's most popular radio stars after WWII. He reprised the role of "Rochester" in many films and TV shows, including "You Can't Cheat an Honest Man", "Love Thy Neighbor", "The Red Skelton Hour", "Bachelor Father", and the 1950 TV Series, "The Jack Benny Show". Some of his other classic films include "Gone with the Wind", “Jezebel", "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World”, and a lead in the classic musical, "Cabin in the Sky". He also voiced the character of "Bobby Jones Mason" in the animated TV series "Harlem Globe Trotters” and "The New Scooby-Doo Movies" in 1973 (his final role). He was married twice. Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson died in 1977 at the age of 71.
In some ways, “You Can’t Take It with You” can be seen as an inverted screwball comedy. As opposed to classic screwballs, the leads are the “normal” ones, while the supporting cast are screwy. Because this film is so strongly an ensemble piece, it is perhaps the clearest example of how much character actors add flavor and depth to a film. For instance, watch the nervous “Mr. Poppins” (played by Donald Meek), the comically harsh “John ‘Mr. Twitch' Blakeley” (played by Clarence Wilson), the appalled “Mrs. Kirby” (played by Mary Forbes), the happy-go-lucky “Rheba” (played by Lillian Yarbo), the zaniness of dance teacher “Potap Kolenkhov” (played by Mischa Auer), or the humanity of the “Night Court Judge” (played by Harry Davenport), and think about how much they color the scenes in which they appear. Their contribution in shaping the film is invaluable. Because the studio system was such a well-oiled moviemaking machine, hundreds of contract players like them could slip easily from film to film, since character actor parts often required only a few days to shoot. Many of these very talented and seasoned actors appeared in anywhere from four to twenty films a year (or more), and true to Hollywood, were often typecast, even in their small roles.
Capra’s belief in the individual also informed his directing, and he believed that all roles, no matter how small, were important. Every actor who appears in “You Can’t Take It with You” was given a backstory, name, and personality for their character, and that is perhaps why everyone (even those with one line) is distinct and seems real. I’ve previously written about several others who appear in this film, including: Ward Bond, who plays detective “Mike” (I wrote about him in my post on “It’s a Wonderful Life”); H. B. Warner, who plays “Ramsey” (I wrote about him in my “Sunset Boulevard” post; and even Jimmy the Crow (who I mentioned in “It’s a Wonderful Life”). This film illuminates Hollywood studio film actors in all their glory. Dimitri Tiomkin wrote the film’s score, and you can read about him in my post on “High Noon”.
One more thing I think will be of interest is the use of the word “Nuts”. You’ll see it on the sign which gets pinned to “Alice’s” cape in the park, continuing into the hilarious swanky restaurant scene. In case you weren’t aware, at the time “Nuts” was considered a four-letter-word (akin to saying “bullshit” today), and as per the Motion Picture Production Code (which you can read about in my “Red Dust” post), the word was forbidden to be said unless it referred to a crazy person or a food. I suppose because no one actually says the word in “You Can’t Take It with You”, it managed to slip by the censors.
In addition to Best Picture and Best Director Academy Award wins, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress nominations, “You Can’t Take It with You” was also nominated for Best Cinematography (Joseph Walker), Best Sound Recording (John P. Livadary), and Best Film Editing (Gene Havlick) Oscars.
This film shows Hollywood's expertise to entertain and Frank Capra's gift to make an audience laugh and cry. You are in for a truly fun and moving time. Enjoy, “You Can’t Take It with You”!
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