Friday, July 29, 2011

You Can't Take It with You (1938)

This oft-overlooked entry in the Capra canon actually won Best Picture in 1938, deservedly so too, since it's probably the funniest film Capra ever made. Based on the Kaufman and Hart play, the film greatly expands on the original material to make it into much more of a social commentary in addition to a comedy. Ostensibly it starts Jean Arthur, James Stewart, and Lionel Barrymore, but it's much more of an ensemble show, and the real stars are all the unforgettable minor characters.

The Broadway play You Can't Take It with You was very much a comedy of culture clash between the free-spirited Vanderhof clan and the Kirbys, a family of straight-laced socialites. Capra augments this difference so that Mr. Kirby (Edward Arnold) is a greedy venture capitalist whose latest plan involves buying up a large chunk of the city to build a new factor, and unbeknownst to him, Grandpa Vanderhof (a great performance by Lionel Barrymore) is the one man who refuses to sell his land. The direct conflict begins when Kirby's son Tony (James Stewart) gets engaged to Vanderhof's granddaughter Alice (Jean Arthur), and she invites the wealthy financier to meet her family, desperate for the Kirbys' approval before she weds their son. Despite her desire to make a good impression, her fiance is equally adamant that his parents see her family as they really are, she he purposely brings them there on the wrong night, and great comedy inevitably ensues, including Mr. Kirby's plans to strong-arm the Vanderhofs into selling backfiring on him while he's a guest under their roof.

As I said before, it's the character actors that really make this film memorable, so let me name off some of my favorite performances. In one of her earliest film roles, we are treated to Ann Miller as Jean Arthur's ballet-crazy sister, who can't quite hide her technical prowess, even though she's supposed to be playing a novice. We also have Mischa Auer stealing the show as her Russian dance instructor Kolinkov, for whom everything "stinks," and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson as their housekeeper's lazy boyfriend. I won't give away much more, lest I spoil the comedy gold., but I'll suffice to say that this is one of the few films that made me split my sides with laughter the first time I saw it.

Being a Capra film, of course, we get a moral message handed to us, but I think he may have been trying a little too hard to squeeze one out of this plot. Certainly it fits well with the rejection of materialism and "Love thy neighbor" theme he'd already established in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,  but it doesn't really challenge us in the same way. Whereas in Deeds we get a sense of the hero being a Don Quixote figure, whose naive vision might border on lunacy - hence the sanity trial - in You Can't Take It with You we are sure from the beginning that the Vanderhof clan is in the right despite their quirks, so it loses the inherent drama in that sense. Still, this is a minor quibble, as the plotline is still effective, just not so much as it could be.

For once I'm going to agree with IMDb and give this movie a 8 out of 10. It's a good adaptation of a good play with great acting and great direction.

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