Frank Capra: You Can't Take It With You

The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next several weeks. In this post LR Simon discusses You Can’t Take It With You (1938).

If you haven’t seen Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You, some of the subject matter will surprise you. His recurring themes of class relations, the corrupting influence of money, the seemingly powerless individual going against a wealthy adversary, and cynicism being overcome by the inherent goodness in people all play significant roles in the story, but some of the minor points seem timely now as well, especially Tony Kirby’s (James Stewart) interest in alternative energy.

Jean Arthur plays Alice Vanderhof, a secretary in the bank owned by A. P. Kirby (Edward Arnold), Tony’s father. Tony’s mother (Mary Forbes) strongly disapproves of the match, a feeling that intensifies when Tony brings his parents to the chaotic Vanderhof residence to meet Alice’s family. The meeting doesn’t go as Alice had planned – between an unprepared dinner for which the hot dogs are still to be purchased, the pet crow (named Jim), Alice’s constantly dancing sister Essie (Ann Miller), and a police raid, approval from the Kirby’s seems unlikely.

Like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It With You features a courtroom scene that descends into chaos while the presiding judge watches, amused. Unlike Mr. Deeds, You Can’t Take It With You has a prison sequence, where Grandpa Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) and A. P. Kirby talk about whether being wealthy is important at all. As a result of this conversation, Kirby has a change of heart about the Vanderhofs, and especially about Alice, when he realizes that he will lose his son if he doesn’t make significant changes in the way he treats his son. Even Mrs. Kirby begins to soften toward the Vanderhofs.

James Stewart is charming as Tony, and Jean Arthur is very good as Alice; they’re good together – but their romantic comedy section of the film follows well-worn paths leading up to a predictable conclusion. Grandpa Vanderhof and A. P. Kirby have the more interesting relationship – on first viewing, the change Kirby undergoes doesn’t seem as predestined as one might expect.

Barrymore has the unenviable task of pontificating at length during the prison sequence and making the lines seem like something a real person would say. His lines during this sequence would, with some editing, make a fine speech at a political rally. At one point he says: “Lincoln said, ‘With malice toward none, with charity for all.’ Nowadays they say ‘Think the way I do, or I’ll bomb the daylights out of you.’” Capra has a reputation for making movies that radiate optimism, but he has enough of a realist’s perspective to keep that optimism from turning saccharine.

The portrayal of the Vanderhofs’ two black servants, Rheba (Lillian Yarbo) and Donald (Eddie Anderson), can make for uncomfortable viewing for modern audiences. They play to stereotypes for laughs; Capra usually made a point of treating all of his characters with respect and love, even as he had them engage in ridiculous business (e.g., Deeds playing the tuba when he’s told of his inheritance), and while he didn’t treat Rheba and Donald with malice, it’s difficult to see the same depth of characterization that the white characters have. It’s easy to dismiss Rheba’s and Donald’s nondimensionality as being part of the time (1938), and any presence of black characters on the screen as an important step in the progress of black actors in mainstream cinema, but in other films Capra manages with other black characters – extras, really, as they have no lines – to show more dignity and depth of humanity than he does here, that his approach here is comparatively lazy, even though Rheba and Donald have more screen time, lines, and names.

Despite its shortcomings, and if it weren’t for certain other of Capra’s films, You Can’t Take It With You could be considered the quintessential Frank Capra movie – part screwball romantic comedy, part social commentary, populated with memorable characters, and a few unforgettable highlights.


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