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You Can’t Take It with You (1938)

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Score: 8/10

Genre: Romantic Comedy Running Time: 2 hrs. 6 min.

Release Date: September 29th, 1938 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Frank Capra Actors: Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold, Mischa Auer, Ann Miller, Spring Byington, Samuel S. Hinds, Donald Meek, H.B. Warner, Halliwell Hobbes, Dub Taylor

O

n Wall Street at the Kirby and Company building, Mr. Anthony P. Kirby himself (a perfectly cast Edward Arnold) arrives to a conglomeration of suits and executives, bustling about to hear the latest news. The CEO reports that his business in Washington D.C. went smoothly, and that a troublesome senator and his anti-trust plan have been quelled. If the corporation plays its cards right, it’ll be the largest individual monopoly in the world, capitalizing on and cornering the booming munitions industry. The last property holdout is Mr. Ramsey (H.B. Warner), but Kirby owns all twelve blocks surrounding the Ramsey factories. The only other problem is a silly old man with a tiny abode inside the radius, who doesn’t appear interested in selling his home, even at double or quadruple the value (it is, in fact, an enormous, three-story place that houses quite a few people).

Although other methods exist outside of money, the real estate agent (Clarence Wilson) in charge of acquiring the land isn’t keen on immediately resorting to underhanded tactics. And stamp-collecting Grandpa Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore), who believes in doing only what pleases him (“Never a dull moment!”) and allowing everyone in his household to do just what he or she wants, is too distracted to have a serious conversation about a deal. The residence itself is something of a funny farm: granddaughter Essie Carmichael (Ann Miller) dances about continuously like a ballerina; her husband Ed (Dub Taylor) is an aspiring musician who spontaneously practices compositions on a xylophone; daughter Penny Sycamore (Spring Byington) ceaselessly types plays, inspired solely by a misdelivered typewriter; her husband Paul (Samuel S. Hinds) invents a new type of firecracker; and several other individuals reside there as well, such as an ice delivery man who was convinced to give up his career for a chance to live a carefree life in the happy-go-lucky building, and a dance instructor (Mischa Auer) who likely shows up solely for free meals.

To make the situation nuttier, Vanderhof invites elderly clerk Mr. Poppins (Donald Meek) back to the dwelling to work on designing toys. Penny’s daughter Alice (Jean Arthur) is the only one who works at a real job, as a secretary for banker Tony (James Stewart) – a young man recently promoted to vice president of his company, and one who is madly in love with her. The catch is that Tony is Anthony Kirby’s son – and the Kirbys certainly don’t approve of the union, especially as it interferes with ongoing negotiations over the real estate.

Lighthearted and sweet, “You Can’t Take It with You” never really addresses the seriousness of the Vanderhofs’ scenario (such as current finances and income) or the typical evils of politics and big businesses and their corruptive monetary motivations (until the very end, when it’s too late). The predicaments don’t appear severe, even when an IRS agent comes collecting (in a scene with antigovernment commentary), or when Alice insists she wants the approval of Mrs. Kirby (Mary Forbes) before marrying Tony, or when the police burst through the doors, or when everyone ends up in a courtroom. Nothing can sour their mood.

Full of romanticism and Americanism (and Americana), “You Can’t Take It with You” is almost entirely devoid of realism. Instead, it focuses on mental, spiritual, and employment satisfaction, and the varying family structures and lifestyles that dictate those conditions. Viewed from two highly contrasting positions on the matter, the differences become points of incompatibility, distress, judgment, and disapproval. But the culture clashing provides plenty of comedy, chiefly with the Kirbys’ inevitable surprise visit interrupting a particularly lively evening. General frivolity, revelry, playful shenanigans, slapstick, and disruptive balks at traditional upper-class propriety supplement the mirthful romance and screwball domicile.

When extreme coincidence finally orchestrates the boisterous destruction of reputations (along with newsworthy scandals), plenty of heavy-handed dialogue – which supports the idea of unfulfilling wealth and power – ends up muddying the pacing. It ultimately becomes a deliverer of the message of the value of friendship, the importance of happiness, and the insignificance of money (which you can’t take with you). These motifs of the qualities of humanity aren’t unlike the predominant themes of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” (which had a theatrical adaptation the same year) and director Frank Capra’s own “It’s a Wonderful Life,” made years later with greater resonance. But, with a poignant ending sequence, making splendid use of several repeated gags, this Oscar-winning film (based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play) is yet another enjoyable production from Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin, who previously collaborated on “Lady for a Day,” “It Happened One Night,” and “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.”

– Mike Massie

 



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