Week eleven, and Witney Seibold’s Best Picture diary runs into the wonderfully sentimental 1938 Frank Capra classic You Can’t Take It With You.
Some context: in 1938, America was still feeling the effects of the Great Depression. The government wasn’t to be trusted, economics was a lie, and anyone who managed to hang onto their wealth was morally suspect. And while amoral rich bastards have been a stock dramatic character for, gosh, centuries, the modern version of that character was codified in movies like You Can’t Take It With You. In Frank Capra’s famous movie, the heroes refuse to pay taxes, and the wealthy characters are seen as stuffy, lifeless buffoons. The “evil rich” will be a common notion in many Best Picture winners, and will be used to most famous effect in Citizen Kane, a little flick from 1941 you may have heard of. So if the heroes of Capra’s film seem irresponsible and childish to a modern audience (they refuse to pay taxes?), know that they are actually intended to be heroic, bold, free-thinking wild spirits.
You Can’t Take It With You is shamelessly sentimental. It’s about blissful liberty overcoming corporate cynicism. It’s about everything working out in the end. It’s about how love, romance, and inventiveness are definitely better than wealth, status, and ambition. Even the title is a lesson to the audience. And it’s all told with a relatively heavy hand. But since it was made by Frank Capra – who essentially invented film sentimentality – you forgive a lot of it. Capra, who I previously wrote about in Best Picture: It Happened One Night (1934), was a master on-screen humanity. He had a knack for casting actors and exploiting situations for every last bit of their halcyon, sweet, romantic powers. These days, the word “sentimentality” is a bit of a cuss. When talking about Capra, it’s a compliment.
You Can’t Take It With You is largely a Romeo &Juliet story, about young lovers from differing castes who want to marry. The immortal Jimmy Stewart (who would work regularly with not only Capra, but rising star Alfred Hitchcock) plays a calm, soft-spoken rich boy named Tony Kirby, the uncharacteristically laid-back son of the wound-up, wealthy banker Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold from The Devil and Daniel Webster). Kirby, Sr. has plans to buy out a local neighborhood and replace it with a brand new, ultra-spiffy neighborhood. All he has to do it buy up one final property. If that story sounds familiar, it should; it’s been used in hundreds of movies since. It was even a plot point in the recent Brick Mansions.
And who should own that property but Martin Vanderhoff (Lionel Barrymore from Grand Hotel)? Martin is eternally bemused by the world. He walks around on crutches because he was dared to slide down a bannister. His personal interests skew toward hugs and harmonicas. His home is a bustling hodgepodge of inventors, musicians, dancers, and artists. His relatives make toys and firecrackers for a living. Early in the film, Martin adopts one of Kirby’s accountants (Donald Meek) to join their little ragtag family of inventors because the accountant has invented one of the damn cutest toys I’ve ever seen: it’s a mechanical bunny that pops up out of an Easter egg. It also just so happens that Martin’s feisty daughter Alice (Jean Arthur) is engaged to Tony Kirby, their romance having been carried out largely in secret before the film begins.
When the families meet, it’s embarrassing. Will the ultra-stuffy rich people ever understand the wild freedoms of the tax-free weirdos? Will the weirdos lose their patience with the ambition of the rich? These interactions play out naturally, comedically, and beautifully sentimentally. The rest of the film is essentially a struggle to reconcile freedom and The Man. Indeed, when one brushes back a few layers, one can easily find a salient comment on notions of American liberty. What is it to be free? Is it the freedom to pursue whatever you want? Perhaps, but how does one do whatever they want when the law may stand in the way? And what of the wealthy, whose freedom seems to surpass yours? Perhaps this is why You Can’t Take It With You is always a good film to watch in any era: Its setting may be 1938, but its conceits are somehow timeless.
You Can’t Take It With You only won two Oscars that year: Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress (Spring Byington played Martin’s ever-strong wife, Penny). It’s also one of the best Best Pictures I have seen so far. It may feel a bit dated, but it’s also still 100% moving and wonderful. It comes from an era when people could make speeches about their ideals, and seem stronger for it. Please see this one. Heck, see any Frank Capra movie. Between this film and 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Capra was on a roll.
Join me next week for Gone with the Wind.