YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (Frank Capra, 1938)

Frank Capra won his third directorial Oscar for the zany, frequently hilarious social comedy You Can’t Take It with You, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Robert Riskin wrote the film, which also won the best picture Oscar, to neutralize the tart Leftist politics of the original and to release the original from its single set, which included admitting grim melodrama at a heartless bank, the scene of Capra’s masterpiece, American Madness (1932). Capra, of course, was a Republican for whom even the New Deal was too radical, and Riskin had worked with this director before, having written Capra’s American Madness, It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), among others. The result this time was a vibrant entertainment, with a class-crashing romance at the center, but one that’s far folksier than the compact, biting, sophisticated play by Kaufman and Hart.
     It is a tale of two families: the eccentric, fun-loving Sycamores (suggesting the “tree of life”) and the straight-laced, fat-cat Kirbys, each of which contributes a member to the workplace romance that will ultimately unite the families across the barrier of disparate social standing, as well as certain opposing business interests, dividing them. Alice is secretary to Vice-President Tony Kirby, a dutiful son and reluctant banker whose father, Anthony P. Kirby, owns and runs the bank. Alice’s grandfather, Martin Vanderhof, refuses to sell his home, which the elder Kirby is seeking to buy in order to build a munitions factory in pursuit of a munitions monopoly that potential war will make enormously profitable for him. Meanwhile, in a bit of comical mirror-imaging, the Sycamores, in their basement, are illegally concocting fireworks for their neighborhood Fourth of July celebration. Meanwhile meanwhile, Grandpa Vanderhof refuses to pay his federal income tax, while Kirby, no doubt, more skillfully manages not to pay his. Make of this what you will: Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You was filmed in Nazi Germany.
     Forthright Alice and spoiled rich kid Tony are played by Jean Arthur and James Stewart with dreamy charm and terrific comedic flair. Lionel Barrymore, as Grandpa, gives a rare good performance—given his abysmal track record, a real tribute to the director’s skill with actors. Edward Arnold is outstanding as Anthony P., giving also one of his best performances; it turns out that the greedy banker genuinely loves his son more than he does money (yeah, right), and that as a former harmonica enthusiast he can join Grandpa Vanderhof for a folksy duet. Hold on to your handkerchiefs!
     The funniest performance is delivered by Mischa Auer as Kolenkhov, the Russian exile who ballet-tutors Ann Miller’s Essie, Alice’s sister (“Confidentially, she steenks”). The most dramatic turn comes from Jesus Christ himself (The King of Kings, Cecil B. DeMille, 1927), H.B. Warner, as Ramsey, who is driven to suicide by Anthony P.’s cut-throat business tactics, sparking the latter’s conscience and helping to redeem his soul. They don’t call it “Capracorn” for nothing.
     This isn’t exactly a bad film; but how on earth did it take the Oscar against King Vidor’s The Citadel, which both the New York critics and the National Board of Review named the year’s best English-language film?

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