Saturday, March 31, 2012

Stubs - You Can't Take It With You

YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938) Starring: Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart, and Edward Arnold. Directed by Frank Capra. Screenplay by Robert Riskin. Based on the play by George Kaufman and Moss Hart. Produced by Frank Capra. Run Time: 126. Black and White. U.S. Comedy, Romance, Drama.

Meet Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore), the head a very eccentric family. His daughter, Penny Sycamore (Spring Byington) writes plays because someone accidentally delivered a typewriter to the house. Her husband, Paul Sycamore (Samuel S. Hinds) builds fireworks in the basement with former ice-man, DePinna (Halliwell Hobbes). His grand-daughter Essie Carmichael (Ann Miller) wants to be a dancer, but makes due as a candy maker. Her husband, Ed (Dub Taylor), a former football player from Alabama, sells the candy, prints hand bills and plays the xylophone.

Rounding out the household are Rheba (Lillian Yarbo), the maid and her fiancé Donald (Eddie Anderson, better known as Rochester from the Jack Benny radio and TV shows). There is the newbie, Poppins (Donald Meek), a bored accountant that Martin comes across in a real estate broker’s office. Poppins hates his job and wants to make masks and toys and there is no better place to pursue such things than Martin’s house. Essie’s dance instructor Boris Kolenkhov (Mischa Auer) tends to show up whenever dinner is being served to give her lessons. And last but not least, is Martin’s other grand-daughter, Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur). A bit of an odd ball, she works out of the house for banker Tony Kirby (James Stewart), who has just asked her to marry him.

Tony is a Vice President who works for his father, Anthony Kirby (Edward Arnold). Tony’s mother (Mary Forbes) is uptight and not at all happy with Tony’s love of middle class Alice. Kirby is a banker trying to corner the munitions market by forcing a munitions manufacturer, Ramsey, into selling. Part of Kirby’s plan is to buy up the 12 blocks around Ramsey’s operations. The one hold out that prevents him from controlling the entire 12 blocks is someone known around the neighborhood as Grandpa aka Martin Vanderhof.

With that premise laid out, it is not hard to see where the story is going. In a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet, Alice invites Tony to bring his parents over to her grandfather’s house for dinner. But Tony, wanting to see how his father and mother, Mary Forbes, will react to seeing the Vanderhof’s as they are, brings them over a full day early. This turns out to be the date that G-Men, including Ward Bond, decide to move on Ed Carmichael, for distributing what they think is pro-communist literature in his candy box. They don’t buy that the inserts were intended to advertise a fireworks show with a Russian revolution theme. It doesn’t help that while the G-men are there, the stash of fireworks goes off.

Everyone in the house is arrested, including the Kirbys. In a scene that reminds me of another Capra film, It’s a Wonderful Life, Martin’s $100 fine is paid when everyone, including the judge (Harry Davenport), chips in.
Humiliated, Alice leaves the house. Her absence prompts Martin to finally sell his house. If she won't come home, then he'll bring the house to her. With his sale, the businesses around him are forced to close and Kirby is able to force Ramsey (H.B. Warner) to sell. But on the verge of his celebration, his son resigns to pursue what he wants to do. And distraught over losing his business, Ramsey dies of heart failure.

Ramsey's sudden death, and the resignation of his son, prompts Kirby to re-evaluate his own life. Rather than going through with the mega merger, Kirby goes to Martin's house, where even though they are moving, they still have time for him. Kirby comes to the same realization that Martin had come to years ago: life is too short not to do what you want. In the end, he sells Martin back his home and doesn’t force the neighborhood businesses to shut down and move away. Alice comes home and is once more engaged to marry Tony. One imagines that Kirby will one day be a part of the Martin household as well.

There is a lot to like about the movie. The cast, especially those in the Vanderhof household come off as an eccentric and loveable mix of characters. Who wouldn’t want to live there? Lionel Barrymore, who I find to be a fascinating actor, gives a very good comedic performance. He is seen on crutches, with the pretense Martin broke his foot, but it would not be too long before Barrymore would be wheelchair bound due to arthritis.

Jean Arthur and James Stewart (who was on his way to stardom and top-billing) give their usual good performances. But most of the silliness comes from the supporting cast of Ann Miller, Dub Taylor, Eddie Anderson, Mischa Auer, Spring Byington, Donald Meek, Samuel Hinds and Halliwell Hobbes. Even Ward Bond appears as one of the G-men who come to arrest everyone at the Vanderhof house. Many of these actors would appear in other Frank Capra films. The one that comes quickest to mind is It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) which stars Stewart, Barrymore, Hinds and Bond from this film.

In some ways, this is a bit of a forgotten movie, even though it did win the Best Picture and Best Director awards. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Capra made so many fine movies that this one gets lost in the shuffle. After all it was his third best director Oscar in five years: It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and the fourth film to be nominated for Best Picture in the same span. Capra would go on to do Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and the aforementioned It’s A Wonderful Life. There are so many to choose from over his career that one had to be “forgotten”.

Perhaps it is Capra’s style which like a lot of filmmakers of the time, is not a big hurry to get to the end. You spend time with the characters in a way that you don’t with movies anymore. And in spending time, these movies seem to be slower paced than what we’re used to today. This is as much a character study as anything else. You get to meet the people in scenes that are not always moving the main plot forward. Example, Eddie Anderson is down in the basement putting together something while being assisted by a raven. Or Spring Byington is writing a play no one ever reads, but is using a kitten as a paperweight. These scenes add to the atmosphere and don’t propel plot, but are memorable nevertheless.

When watching a film like this, I’m always struck about how comedy has changed over the years. Maybe it has to do with the fact this is based on a stage play by Kaufman and Hart, but it just seems that comedies from that time were written up to people and didn’t rely on the gross out or the strange for their humor. You have to listen as well as watch these movies, while nowadays paying attention too closely is not such a good idea. Sometimes it’s better not to know what is being said or done.

Capra is someone whom I respect as director and story-teller. He is not necessarily my favorite director, but I do enjoy most of the films he directed, including this one. I would recommend it as viewing for anyone who wants to see a well-made, but slightly off tilt Hollywood romantic comedy.

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