YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938)
Sad that comedies are regarded so poorly, and given that the Academy has rewarded so few with Best Picture, the ones that did win are now almost completely forgotten. This should not be.
You Can't Take It With You was the second comedy to win Best Picture (after It Happened One Night), and it has an impressive pedigree. Adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Directed by two-time Academy Award-winner Frank Capra. Its stars? Established acting legend Lionel Barrymore (of the acting dynasty), future acting legend James Stewart, future dancing star Ann Miller, and even Eddie "Rochester" Anderson.
Oh, and it happens to be very funny too.
Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) is a stenographer to the son of wealthy banker/tycoon A.P. Kirby (Edward Arnold). Said son, Kirby Bank Vice President Tony Kirby (Stewart) is in love with Alice and vice-versa. There are, however, a few slight hiccups to them getting together. Hiccup One: his snobbish mother (Mary Forbes) doesn't approve. Hiccup Two: her family is, well, eccentric to say the least. Hiccup Three: unbeknown to each other, Grandpa Vanderhof (Barrymore) is the sole holdout in selling his property to A.P. (Arnold) who needs to have every bit of that twelve-block area in order to build his weapons factory. With all these impediments, it's going to be a bumpy road to the altar for these two.
The Sycamore clan is a collection of free spirits, and they don't come any freer. The family encourages creativity, even if there is no discernible talent to go with it. Mother Penny (Spring Byington) writes plays and novels, only because a typewriter was sent to the house by mistake. Alice's sister Essie Carmichael (Miller) loves to dance and will break out into a pirouette at the drop of a hat, or the sound of her husband Ed's (Dub Taylor) xylophone. Father Paul (Samuel L. Hinds) likes to make fireworks, as does Mr. DePinna (Halliwell Hobbes). Now, Mr. DePinna is not related to anyone: he just came one day for dinner and never left (which, curiously, is the same way Ed found his way there, after the rest of the Alabama football team somehow managed to go back). Grandpa Vanderhof convinces meek Mr. Poppins (the appropriately named Donald Meek--his real name) to leave his job at the Kirby Bank and pursue his passion for making toys.
The whole clan, along with the help, Rheba ( Lillian Yarbo) and Donald (Anderson), live in the rambling house. They have enough to get along (via Essie's candy-making, Ed's printing, Grandpa's stamp-collection appraisals, and Dad's fireworks) and while peculiar in their own way are all extremely close and happy. As much as Alice may love Tony Jr. and the same, both are a little trepidatious of having them meet the other. However, Alice insists the Kirbys come and look them over.
They do...on the wrong night, where the Kirbys come across what looks like a scene out of a madhouse. Due to A.P.'s own machinations (and the innocent actions of the extended Sycamore clan), the house is raided and everyone is arrested...and fireworks literally go off. After they are all in the clink, the Kirbys are embarrassed, the Sycamores are bailed out by the neighbors that love them (especially because so long as Grandpa Vanderhof doesn't sell, they won't have to move), but there is a change.
Alice, so angry at how the Kirbys look down on her family and Tony's inability to stand up to them for her, breaks their engagement and flees. A.P., meanwhile, begins to see how unloved he is and how disconnected he is from his own son. The whole Sycamore group is so saddened by Alice's absence that Grandpa decides to give up and sell the house. A.P., forced to meet the rival he's vanquished (H.B. Warner), finally sees the light, and You Can't Take It With You ends with the lovers reunited, the Sycamore and Kirby patriarchs united in laughs, and all's well that ends well.
If anything You Can't Take It With You touches on familiar Capra themes: the importance of family and community and how the 'common man' has perhaps greater value over the wealthy because they are loved. We also have from Robert Riskin's screenplay (based on George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's play) the idea that individuality is important, that people are truly wealthy not due to money but due to happiness. The Sycamore and guests are certainly not wealthy in terms of finance (though they do earn a living). Their wealth comes from the joy they get from following their own pursuits.
Penny Sycamore may not have any actual talent as an authoress, but she derives great joy out of writing. Mr. Poppins quit his accountant job in part because he saw both the meaningless of it but also because he simply had no joy in his life. Instead, he now pursues the joy he gets from making small toys, making money and having a good time in the process.
In short, You Can't Take It With You is the unofficial Sycamore motto. If it isn't fun, why do it? They aren't really insane (Alice points out that Grandpa makes a good amount by appraising stamp collections, for which he studied long and hard after deciding to leave his old job 'because it was no fun'); instead, they are non-conformists who see little value to money other than it provides for their needs. They do work, but they have fun doing it.
It's a positive message in You Can't Take It With You, one that Capra specialized in. Capra, however, never made any character evil or heartless. The Kirbys may come off as the antagonists, but we are allowed to see the evolution of A.P. from heartless wheeler-dealer to caring father. Even his wife's snobbishness is played for laughs, and at the end, we get a subtle hint that maybe, in the words of Grandpa's prayer at dinner, "is finally thawing out".
The performances Capra got are all first-rate. Byington (who received a Best Supporting Oscar nomination) was delightful as the slightly addled but always chipper Penny, who was well-meaning, kind, but fully aware how her family's activities might look. Her scene when she finally has to face that she will leave the house she has lived in and loved is heartbreaking. Barrymore is also a delight as Grandpa, who has decided that life is not worth living if one can't have a good time and help others along the way. He also doesn't see any reason to pay income tax, not because he wants to hold on to his money, but because he has the temerity to want to know exactly what the government is going to do with it. He doesn't object to paying, he merely shall we say wants a receipt.
Arthur is not as well-remembered as she should be, because her performance is witty and funny but is also grounded with heart. She proves hilarious but relate able when she first meets Tony's parents, completely unaware that a sign advertising to teach a new dance for ten cents is still attached to her cape. Her Alice is clearly in love with Tony, but she also is loyal to her family and despite their outward oddity will never accept their being humiliated and put down by anyone, least of all people like the Kirbys. Stewart also shows how well he could handle comedy, as when he tells Alice that he feels a scream coming on. It's a credit to Capra's direction and Stewart's performance that this scene is both comedic and tense.
One thing that I think should be mentioned is that You Can't Take It With You was remarkably progressive when it came to race relations. Both Rheba and Donald were always treated with respect and affection by everyone in the Sycamore house, and they were full part and parcel of the wild goings-on in the household. They were fully equal to everyone else, and while it was never an overt call for racial equality, what looks perfectly normal to us today might have been a bit surprising in the 1930s. This is something Capra is rarely if ever credited for, and I hope to rectify that in my small way.
Unfortunately, perhaps one of the reasons You Can't Take It With You isn't as well-remembered or known today is that a later Frank Capra film, one called It's A Wonderful Life, travelled similar terrain (in fact, the neighbors racing to help the family pay off a debt in You Can't Take It With You will remind people of a similar plot point in It's A Wonderful Life). I imagine some people might find the film a bit long (a little over two hours), but few will fail to fall for its innocent charm and insights on the human condition.
Grandpa makes the comment that once people settled things with discussion. Now, with all the arms manufacturing, it's "think the way I do or I'll bomb the daylights out of you". Words of wisdom that are more accurate today than ever before.
You Can't Take It With You may not have been one of the best films to win Best Picture, but is a delight that will make one laugh and see how it's better to be rich than be wealthy.
1939 Best Picture: Gone With the Wind
Please visit the Best Picture Catalogue for more reviews of films that have been so honored.