You Can't Take It With You - PosterThe best part of Christmas, once you’re too old to get toys, is It’s A Wonderful Life. But what about the rest of the year? Wouldn’t it be great if the cast and director of America’s timeless holiday classic made another movie, one suitable for non-Christmas occasions? They did, eight years before It’s A Wonderful Life, and it won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Anthony Kirby is a brutally avaricious Wall Street executive during the Great Depression, delighted that an imminent business deal will not just bring a huge profit, but crush the competition in the process. The only glitch: Grandpa Vanderhof, the patriarch of an extended family of eccentrics under one roof who have forsaken the pursuit of wealth. With no interest in money, the cheerful Vanderhof refuses to sell out at any price. Meanwhile, Kirby hopes to groom his spoiled son, Tony, into an executive himself. Tony’s main interest, however, is falling in love with his secretary Alice – whose grandfather is none other than Vanderhof. While the elder Kirby plots to acquire the property and complete the deal, Tony plots to convince his snobbish parents that Alice is a suitable fiancee for their son.

Ah, Grandpa Vanderhof! I loved him from the first moment he entered the story. Plodding, deliberate, self-possessed, doddering – truth be told, he reminded me in many ways of my own beloved Opa. He’s a mensch of the best kind, beloved by his neighbors for being steadfast in not selling the house (which means that the entire project Mr. Kirby hopes to build in a mutli-lot block cannot move forward), celebrated by his family, and brimming with a joie de vivre. Early on in the movie we get to meet Mrs. Anthony Kirby, when she walks in on Tony in a compromising position with Alice in his office. Now remember, folks, a compromising position in 1938 is much different than a compromising position in 2014. She is summarily appalled, however, and turns on her heel in disgust. It is clear she has little regard for Alice, who becomes driven to win her over at any cost.

Like most modern viewers, I’m mostly familiar with Lionel Barrymore as the heartless Mister Potter. So it was great fun seeing him here, all kindness and harmonica playing, pretty much playing the foil to his most famous role. And, yes, Lionel is Drew’s great-uncle.

You Can’t Take It With You shares more with Wonderful Life than just an on-screen lineup of Capra usual suspects. (I count James Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, H.B. Warner, and Samuel S. Hinds.) There are some obvious thematic similarities as well. Both dramatize the conflict between the pathologically wealthy, with their compulsion for even more money and those more interested in the things in life beyond monetary value – family, community, happiness. In fact several scenes have echoes in scenes from Wonderful Life. When the beloved Vanderhof/Sycamore clan appears before a judge, the courtroom is filled with supportive neighbors who happily pass a hat to cover their fine, it’s unmistakably similar to the resolution of It’s A Wonderful Life. When Grandpa Vanderhof finally loses his temper and lambastes Kirby, it’s hard not to see a little bit of George Bailey’s indignant response to Mister Potter’s faustian job offer.

But, if I’ve portrayed You Can’t Take It With You as a mere rough sketch for a later masterpiece, I’ve been unfair. All jokes aside, it deserves to be seen as its own film, even if it doesn’t quite hit the latter film’s level of greatness.

In the courtroom scene, we also see Alice come into her own – she strongly asserts that Tony Kirby has failed her, and that he isn’t worthy of her love if he cannot both embrace and protect her family from his own. Tony is devastated; he’s clearly in love, possibly not just with Alice but with her entire family, and from the escape they represent from his potential wealth-driven, joyless future. We hear at one point of his dreams to invent and discover, which as an audience member caused me to muse on the battling human drives of stability and self-actualization. Tony’s curiosity concerning Alice’s family also led me to believe he might be more interested in communion with others and with oneself than with wealth. It made him a more likable, relatable character to me.

I liked the jail and courtroom scenes. The movie got going once there was some identifiable conflict in the plot. To me, the film was weakest during Act 1, where it seemed a little directionless. It felt like it took forever for his snobby family to meet her zany family, but once they did, I was all in.

I, on the other hand, was all in the second I saw the glint in Grandpa Vanderhof’s eyes and watched him woo a man known as Poppins out of his job, encouraging him instead to follow his wildest dreams! It can be stated quite simply: this film, and particularly Grandpa, made me happy.

You Can’t Take It With you was adapted from the successful play of the same name, which was a Pulitzer Prize winner for drama. Our next movie to watch is also an adaptation of a play, but one you’ve probably never heard of.

 Also nominated in 1938:
The Adventures of Robin Hood
Alexander’s Ragtime Band
Boys Town
The Citadel
Four Daughters
Grand Illusion
Test Pilot

Next film: HAMLET (1948)

3 Responses to “YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938)”

  1. Lionel Barrymore is the kind of actor you could watch butter toast or read the paper. He’s so good in everything. I think he averaged 4-5 films a year! One of my favorite roles of his is as Captain Disko in ‘Captains Corageous’, which is also one of my favorite films in general. Also, Jean Arthur is really great and a lot of fun to watch in Kapra’s movies. Her final movie, ‘Shane’, is one of my top ten favorites. I was just reading that she was immensely shy and developed kind of a terrible stage fright which seems to have cut her film and stage career short. Also, Edward Arnold has such a great wise old owl face. I’ve never seen him play anything but the antagonist but he does that so well.

  2. cdascher Says:

    Yeah, Barrymore was great. You know I love when actors play the photonegative of the character they’re usually known for (see Ben Kingsley). We’ll get more of him when we draw Grand Hotel.

    Not a Best Picture, but on my ‘to watch’ list is Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. I’m a little embarrassed to admit I’ve never seen. Seems the perfect movie for my love/hate relationship with American patriotism.


  3. I can’t say I was a huge fan of You Can’t Take It With You, which was a reaction I was disappionted to have. I love Capra and his collaborators that show up in this film, but for me it just wasn’t a satisfying story. It definitely had moments that were amusing, and I enjoyed the playfulness between Jimmy Steward and Jean Arthur, But honestly, the Vanderhof family started to annoy me by the film’s end, which I know is a terribly snobby comment to make. More than the family itself, their situation started to annoy me because it never strayed into any territory that felt somewhat darker and threatening. It never made the film feel compelling for me. But I think the biggest, and unfair, hurdle for this film is that the whole time I kept thinking this feels like a lesser version of It’s a Wonderful Life. I couldn’t quite get away from judging it on its own terms, as opposed to making the comparison.

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