YOU’LL LOVE THEM ALL FOR GIVING YOU THE SWELLEST TIME YOU’VE EVER HAD!
With It Happened One Night (1934), Frank Capra had already won an Oscar for Best Director. The same honor was bestowed on him after he adapted the popular Broadway play ”You Can’t Take It With You”. The film was a hit and perhaps Columbia breathed a sigh of relief since his last film, Lost Horizon, had caused them great financial difficulties.
Today, 80 years later, we are more likely to consider Lost Horizon a masterpiece and You Can’t Take It With You an entertaining but flawed film.
The Sycamore family consists of an eccentric bunch of people living in a big old house. The patriarch, Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore), used to be a hard-working businessman but gave it all up one day in favor of simply enjoying life. He’s surrounded by all kinds of free-spirited family members who are busy with their personal projects, ranging from writing stories to dancing to experimenting with explosives. One of the most normal people in this bunch is Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) who’s fallen in love with Tony Kirby (James Stewart). He’s the son of a wealthy banker, Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold); little do they realize that Tony’s dad intends to throw the Sycamores out of their house, no matter the cost.
Changes in the adaptation
The George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart play went through a few changes in the hands of screenwriter Robert Riskin. The original story takes place entirely in the Sycamore house, but Riskin opened it up for the movie, with several new locations. One of them takes place, memorably, in a jail where the Sycamores and the Kirbys have been put after an incident involving the police. There’s a terrific clash between the philosophies of Vanderhof and the banker whose contempt of the working class wins him no friends among the people he’s locked up with. The film is an uneven experience, because it is overlong and the original play maintained a greater focus on its message. Some audiences may also find the loud shenanigans of the Sycamores a little overbearing. There’s also a scene where Vanderhof is arguing with an IRS man about why anyone should pay income taxes; we’re meant to sympathize with the sweet old man, but I couldn’t decide which one of the two made the dumbest arguments. Still, Capra stages many of the scenes very well and it’s impossible not to love, and even be a little touched by, that final sequence where Barrymore and Arnold find common ground over harmonicas.
This is a great cast, with the two serving as perfect symbols of different values, the former working his real-life arthritis (which made him use crutches) into a plot point, and the latter showing enough signs of humanity to make us understand that there’s a reason why Stewart still loves him. Arthur and Stewart are an attractive couple, but the real entertainment value in the film comes from the supporting cast; Donald Meek is fun as a childish bank employee who loves inventing toys.
When you die you can’t take it with you, so you might as well enjoy your riches and the things and people who matter in life right here and now. A thoroughly appealing message, and the film finds satisfying moments to become a battle cry for the oppressed masses and for individualism in a society that rigidly wants you to always fit in.
You Can’t Take It With You 1938-U.S. 127 min. B/W. Produced and directed by Frank Capra. Screenplay: Robert Riskin. Play: George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart. Cinematography: Joseph Walker. Cast: Jean Arthur (Alice Sycamore), Lionel Barrymore (Martin Vanderhof), James Stewart (Tony Kirby), Edward Arnold, Mischa Auer, Ann Miller… Spring Byington, Harry Davenport.
Trivia: Remade as a 1979 TV movie; later a 1987-1988 TV series.
Oscars: Best Picture, Director.
Last word: “Why this mania to film Kaufman and Hart’s play? Because it was a laugh riot? A Pulitzer Prize play? Of course. But I also saw something deeper, something greater. Hidden in ‘You Can’t Take It with You’ was a golden opportunity to dramatize Love Thy Neighbor in living drama. What the world’s churches were preaching to apathetic congregations, my universal language of film might say more entertainingly to movie audiences.” (Capra, TCM)