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Cinderella just told Prince Charming to take a flying leap!


You Can’t Take It with You


Frank Capra won the Best Picture Oscar – and Best Director – for this unfettered, undiluted belly flop into wholemeal sentiment. Unsurprisingly, it’s something of a lumpy ride, to put it mildly. That You Can’t Take It with You plays better than the later winner Going My Way – a treacly Bing Crosby vehicle – is mostly down to a sliver of a dramatic spine and several engaging performances, not least from James Stewart and Jean Arthur. A number of Capra’s films are rightly celebrated as timeless classics, but You Can’t Take It with You, as the phrase goes, hasn’t aged well.

While I wouldn’t go as far as Time Out, due credit to Brian Case for his scathingly withering verdict: “trite, preachy and desperately sincere. If the poor were a vocal minority, this would be denounced as the equivalent of Uncle Tom-ism”. Albeit, the shots Capra is making sometimes come across as wilfully contradictory and/or garbled. Banker AP Kirby (Edward Arnold) is flush back from DC, whereby “one of the most powerful men in the country” has won a government-endorsed munitions award: “With the world going crazy, the next big move is munitions” we are told, and “It’ll be the largest individual monopoly in the world…” Still further “Why, a war wouldn’t be possible anywhere without us”. Clearly anticipating Antony Sutton’s Wall Street Trilogy, armed conflicts are not so much about beefs as making money, acres of it, so make sure you back both sides.

The only thorn in AP’s plans is that he needs to put a competitor out of business (HB Warner’s Ramsey). He’ll achieve this by purchasing a twelve-block radius around his factory. Quite how or why this should have the desired effect is never clarified, but we’ll let that go. What’s important is that Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) is refusing to sell his house, home as it is to a ragtag assortment of boho eccentrics; imagine a pre-hippy commune, but in the insufferably quirky way it would be without a surfeit of drugs to fuddle the senses. Further still, AP’s son Tony (James Stewart) is in love with his secretary Alice (Arthur), who just happens to be Grandpa’s granddaughter. Japes ensue, particularly so when Alice invites AP and his insufferably snobbish wife Meriam (Mary Forbes) to dinner (they turn up on the wrong night, Tony’s doing), and a police raid leads to the arrest of everyone present.

While various of the performances of the extended family – Ann Miller, Dub Taylor – rather grate on the nerves quite quickly, Arthur and Stewart are entirely charming, Stewart is particularly good at playing amused indulgence of this collection of oddballs. Barrymore – on crutches thanks to his actual arthritis, but explained as a sprain – is presumably essaying a decade or so older than his sixty years, while Arthur is surely intended to be considerably younger than her 38.

Much of the dialogue and outlook extolled by the Barrymore and Arnold characters is unornate in its directness and indigestible in its messaging, but their performances, and the essential conflict, carry with them a charge that is unmistakably Capra.  Forbes is also very good as a complete snot, while Mischa Auer (My Man Godfrey) is a riot as Omsk ballet instructor Kolenkhov, for whom everything “stinks” and who comes under suspicion when the police believe Ed (Dub Taylor) is leafleting “the Revolution” (“He’s Russian, and Russians are inclined to look on the dark side”).

Much of the comic business is hit and miss, though, and with a running time of more than two hours, there’s ample room for miss. With the tendency to the same. As noted, anything featuring Stewart and Arthur tends to work, most winningly a dinner scene where Alice has to disguise “NUTS” on her back and Tony covers for her scream by announcing a rodent infestation to the alarmed maître d’ (“A rat. About six of them”). The night court sequence is fun too, much of it thanks to Harry Davenport’s amused performance as the judge.

Capra’s essential lesson – that we should follow our star and refuse to be shackled by the state or expectation, be that from the same, peers or family – is a commendable one, but his delivery is so sickly, you’re likely to gag at regular intervals. You Can’t Take It with You’s fine initially, when Grandpa persuades accountant Poppins (Donald Meek) to give his job the push and come stay at his house, working on his inventions, but the resistance to such carefree messaging gradually grows. When AP spurns Grandpa’s smug wisdom about having quit his job 35 years before to do what he wants with “This would be a fine country if we all spent our time in the zoo, and played harmonica” – again, Grandpa is pretty much right – with “Oh, why don’t you go out and get yourself a pulpit somewhere?” we can sympathise with the kneejerk resistance to such superior wisdom.

And again, it’s fine in and of itself that Tony – announced from the first as having a “cock-eyed sense of values”, so ones in conflict with his father’s express capitalism – sees Capra’s message in the family (“It just seems like, in their own way, they’ve found what everybody’s looking for”). And that Alice points to the corrosive element of inculcated fear that dictates society (people being scared to save money and scared to spend it). But Ramsay’s broken tirade, just prior to dropping dead from a heart attack, about money bringing him no happiness, and neither will it bring AP any – thus subsequent to Grandpa’s tirade about AP being a “failure as a human being” – is simply too much. The differences have to be underlined at every turn – “I didn’t know anybody had that many friends anymore” marvels the night court judge – and you rather wish there was more of his board’s dismissive attitude to Ramsey (“Always was a weak sister”) to leaven the bread.

Indeed, the biggest mistake of the movie – one that will be corrected when a more jaded Capra makes It’s A Wonderful Life almost a decade later, on that occasion with Barrymore as the villain – is the belief that AP, rather than operating in the sphere of untutored psychopath, in common with all the Elite, has merely lost touch with what’s important. Such that Grandpa tells him near the end “Mr Kirby, you’re beginning to act quite human”. Indeed, that Capra even has Mrs Kirby laughing along with the Vanderhof clan in the final scene, apparently reconciled, is unforgivable. That is, had the movie not already failed to function in any way coherently.

That scene follows a very silly plot development in which Grandpa decides to sell the house to AP, having previously promised the surrounding residents they were safe as he wouldn’t budge, on the spurious grounds that he and they will up and move in order to be with Alice, estranged from Tony and currently keeping far away from him. It thus shows him up to be all the things he professes not to be, and Capra contrives for such whimsy to be met with the equal and opposite whimsy of AP’s change of heart and becoming a good man, with only slightly less conviction than Ebenezer Scrooge.

Capra’s early points are well made and have some bite, however, even given the broad strokes employed. There’s a refreshing compunction to play to the tune of his own convictions, unrefined as they sometimes are in expression. Grandpa delivers a speech about -isms to budding writer daughter Penny (Spring Byington): “Why don’t you write a play about ‘ism’ mania?” The calling out of self-identifying divisions (fascism, communism etc) is unashamedly nostalgic (“Great Americans didn’t go looking for ‘isms’”), in as much as it beckons rose-tinted spectacles, but the picture’s also clear-eyed to the obfuscation and manipulation they are designed promulgate.

And while Capra would, a few years later, do his earnest bit for the war effort, his cynicism towards any who would foment discord or profit from it in You Can’t Take It with You is undisguised and worthy of due praise. Capra would much later profess pacifism, but come WWII, “I had a guilty conscience. In my films I championed the cause of the gentle, the poor, the downtrodden. Yet I had begun to live like the Aga Khan”. At this point, his position could be assumed more as one of isolationism, however, and deep suspicion of any who would promote the military course. AP is expressly motivated by profiting from bloodshed (there “won’t be a bullet, gun or cannon made in this war without us”), while Grandpa calls out the idea of the government protecting its citizens via the nominal need for battleships, citing the Spanish American War as the last occasion one was needed.

This plays into the notion of finding and feeding on proposed threats, as represented by the Soviet element. Kolenkhov is explicitly included to present a good guy Russian – albeit, an eccentric good guy Russian – such that the authorities are misplaced and prejudicial in assuming he has any interesting in a “Revolution!” on American soil.

The other big beef Capra has – as a Conservative Republican and anti-Roosevelt in outlook – is the wanton reaping of taxes from the populace (ironically, Ayn Rand would later testify that It’s a Wonderful Life counted as communist propaganda, but it goes to explain how this movie might be misconstrued as socialist in message). When IRS agent Wilbur G Henderson (Charles Lane) pays Grandpa a call, it’s to question him over a failure to declare earnings for 22 years and warn of imprisonment or back taxes. “I don’t believe in it” responds Grandpa unrepentantly. He offers the reasonable inquiry “What do I get for the money I paid?” before adding “Why, I wouldn’t mind paying for something sensible”.

This plot point is summarily discarded, adding to a damaging sense that, in terms of dramatic integrity, the picture is left floundering. Grandpa tells the bemused Tony he was “just having fun with him”. So does this mean Grandpa does pay his taxes (we know he appraises stamps, for which he is presumably paid)? In which case, how did the IRS agent get it wrong (and extra-diegetic sources, such as the play, are no use to the movie).

Others at the house are seen to be selling candy, fireworks, and coming up with inventions (it doesn’t seem that either ballet or writing are producing any dividends, particularly given the verdict of them stinking). Ed suggests he isn’t earning enough to make a living. And Capra, rather unfortunately, seems to be suggesting that one of the two black characters on the premises (Eddie Anderson’s Donald) is only comfortable with the prospective move when he learns they’ve “got relief up there”. I was bemused by the status of his girlfriend Reba, played by Lilian Yarbo; she appears to be the maid/cook, which you’d have thought unlikely, given the residents’ apparent – lack of – income, with meals comprising “Half a dozen bottles of beer and some canned salmon”. The alternative is that, used to being employed as a maid/cook, she is keen to continue fulfilling that stereotype when surrounded by white folk. Either way, neither Donald nor Reba exactly come out of the movie with much credit in the individuality or eccentricity stakes.

Capra has other things on his mind too, and one wonders how much – like his characters – they are just whims and how serious they are. It’s notable that this commune takes in its own, entirely state-infrastructure-free versions of the armaments trade (fireworks), advertising (flyers for selling candy), the arts, and communications (stamps). On top of which, Tony is inspired to return to his dream of producing free energy for all from his question “What makes the grass green?” (chlorophyll?) and desire to harness the Sun (“All the power we ever need from the Sun’s rays”). That, it seems, represents the ultimate in an idealistic vision of the redundant state apparatus, reliant as it is on dependency for such basics (be it simply regulation thereof).

Also to be found is a curiously specific attack on arcane inquiry: “I’m a student of occultism” announces Mrs Kirby. “Why, everybody knows spiritualism is fake” laughs Penny. And because Mrs Kirby is hateful, and ridiculed, this must be so. How seriously we’re to take this as a professed Capra opinion – it had, of course, been failed Hollywood player Harry Houdini’s bugbear to debunk, but that was going back some – is debatable, particularly considering his fast and loose with angel Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life.

You Can’t Take It with You was adapted by Robert Riskin from a 1936 Pulitzer-winning play of the same name (Riskin also furnished screenplays for Capra’s It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and their relationship would extend all the way to Frank’s final film, 1961’s Pocket of Miracles). The History of the Movies, under an essay Frank Capra’s American Dream, observed the adaptation underlined extremes of view, such that Kirby “is made more of a grasping, villainous ogre” while the Vanderhofs become “less whimsical, more forthright” (they’re still inveterately whimsical, though!) Crucially “the obstructive plutocrat is finally humanised, joining the music-making at the Vanderhofs’ home-grown Shangri-La, joyfully playing Pollywolly-doodle on a harmonica”.

You Can’t Take It with You was the first James Stewart collaboration with Capra (and with Arthur). Capra was Academy President at this point (a cynic, or AP Kirby, might suggest his winning three Best Director Oscars since taking on the role in 1934 was no coincidence). Anthony Holden notes of the year, “So thoroughly did Capra now dominate the Hollywood scene that the Directors Guild offered his work for the Academy an unexpected tribute. They elected him Guild president as well” (a dispute over directors’ negotiating rights with the Association of Motion Picture Producers threatened both a directors strike and that year’s Oscars; the resultant victory was a triple, for the directors and Capra at the Oscars).

You Can’t Take It with You competed for the prize statuette in a field of ten nominees (the other most famous faces being The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1937’s La Grande Illusion and Jezebel). It had the most nominations (seven) but was pipped for the most prizes by Robin Hood (which won three out of its four). Spring Byington was the only cast member to be nominated, while screenplay lost to Pygmalion. One might see the picture as winning out on sheer Capra-esqueness, but it’s the kind of overdose that rather clogs the arteries

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