As regular readers know, I am attempting to watch all the movies that have received the Oscar for Best Picture. Next on my list was the 1938 winner, You Can't Take it With You, directed by Frank Capra and starring Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart and Edward Arnold. This is a lighthearted film that keeps the viewer laughing.
The other nominees that year were The Adventures of Robin Hood, Alexander's Ragtime Band, Boys Town, The Citadel, Four Daughters, Grand Illusion, Jezebel, Pygmalion, and Test Pilot. This was Capra's third and final Best Director Oscar (he also won for It Happened One Night in 1935 and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in 1937), though he was nominated for two more (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1940 and It's a Wonderful Life in 1947).
The film tells the story of two very different families who meet upon a young couple's engagement. Tony Kirby (James Stewart) is a vice president in his wealthy father's bank. His father, played by Edward Arnold, is seeking to acquire a 12-block area to complete a major deal. The only holdout is the eccentric Martin Vanderhof, who happens to be the grandfather of son Tony's fiancée, Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur).
Alice, who is also Tony's secretary, is arguably the most normal member of the family, although she does like to slide down the stairs. Viewers might recognize Jean Arthur from her roles in other Capra films (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town).
Lionel Barrymore stars as Grandpa Vanderhof, who encourages his household to pursue their dreams without fear. Alice's mother, Penny Sycamore (Spring Byington) is a would-be playwright, who's been writing plays ever since a typewriter was accidentally delivered to the home several years ago. Alice's father, Paul Sycamore (Samuel S. Hinds), makes fireworks (and tests them) in the basement.
Sister Essie Carmichael (Ann Miller) dreams of being a dancer and takes lessons from a surly Russian, Boris Kolenkhov (Mischa Auer), who criticizes everything but is always pleased to stay for dinner. Essie's husband, Ed (Dub Taylor), is a former football player who came for dinner one night and stayed. He also plays a mean vibraphone. A couple adopted family members, both inventors, conduct experiments in the basement. Even the household help are given to dancing and singing along with the merriment.
When Tony proposes, Alice fears that his family will never approve of her, especially Tony's mother (Mary Forbes), a judgmental society wife. So Alice invites the Kirbys over for dinner, instructing her family on how to put their best foot forward. All these plans go out the window when the Kirbys show up a day early, catching Alice's family at their oddball best.
You Can't Take It With You gets performed quite often by amateur theater groups, because it's a fun play that doesn't demand much of its actors except to be silly. I remember watching my dad's Rotary club performing it when I was a little girl. Dad did the sound effects, which are very important to this play, and I found the production delightful. What could be more enchanting than a household where everybody does exactly what they want and supports each other's dreams, no matter how far-fetched?
It makes a difference seeing it performed by more accomplished actors, who portray these characters much more believably, instead of making them caricatures. In particular, the Kirbys, rather than being overly officious and snooty, seem to be merely set in their ways
James Stewart is, of course, charming as Tony, a young man with dreams of his own but who feels obligated to follow his father's footsteps. At heart, he fits in quite well with Alice's family, and he appreciates their anarchic approach to self-reliance. Lionel Barrymore is perfectly cast as Grandpa Vanderhof, a soft-spoken man with a twinkle in his eye, who accepts everything with a calmness forged from years of life experience. He believes that, rather than being fearful, it's best to put a song in your heart, and he does his best to teach this lesson to the elder Mr. Kirby.
The dialogue is entertaining, but the DVD copy I saw had poor sound. I'd love to see a restored version of this classic movie, perhaps with a few extras about the making of the film.
Movies about quirky families abound in Hollywood, and yet this one truly gets what makes such movies so charming. In a sense, everybody's family is like Alice's: we all have our quirks. Yet, Capra realized that oddness alone was not the point. This movie was not about laughing at this strange family. It was about rediscovering the childlike joy inside ourselves and reassessing our values.
As Grandpa Vanderhof put it, we spend too much time worrying about money, which after all, you can't take with you. But the love of friends and family endures.
Frank Capra plus James Stewart makes for an unforgettable treasure.