Frank Capra‘s adaptation of You Can’t Take It With You is one of the least favorite Best Picture winners. For many critics, but not for me. Outside of It’s a Wonderful Life, this film was my gateway to Capra, who I consider one of the most fascinating Golden Age directors. It was also my introduction to Jean Arthur, forever since my primary Hollywood crush. My interest in the film initially came about through a high school production of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, in which I played an FBI agent. As an idealistic teen, everything from the title to the anarchic yet loving clan of eccentrics spoke to me.
It’s fair that some people don’t think YCTIWY deserved the top Oscar, especially since it was up against such great movies as Grand Illusion and The Adventures of Robin Hood. Also, if you know Capra was at the time president of the Academy and was supposed to host the ceremony again that year and he threatened both a resignation and a massive boycott of the event out of support for the near-to-strike Screen Directors Guild and is said to have been honored for his leadership in resolving the whole matter, well all that seems to make the wins for Best Picture and Best Director (out of seven nominations) a little fishy.
Awards matters aside, though, it’s hard not to like YCTIWY with its perfect ensemble cast and its happy-go-lucky political hodgepodge. It’s far from perfect, hardly Capra’s best, but also far from deserving of modern dismissals. So, in honor of its 75th anniversary — contrary to most sources, the film did not open on August 23, 1938, but did premiere to press on this date (sadly the same day Capra’s 3-year-old son died) ahead of a September 1st release — I’d like to share some favorite scenes from a favorite classic.
Introducing the Vanderhof-Sycamore-Carmichael Home
Grandpa Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) has just met and then convinced Mr. Poppins (Donald Meeks) to quit his job — during the Depression! — and join his socialist cult — I mean his household. And now here is our first view of this wacky household, complete with playwriting daughter Penny Sycamore (Spring Byington), her firework-crafting husband Paul (Samuel S. Hinds), his partner Mr. DePinna (Halliwell Hobbes), the dancing granddaughter Essie Carmichael (young Ann Miller), her xylophone-playing husband Ed (Dub Taylor), the maid Rheba (Lillian Yarbo) and her boyfriend Donald (Eddie Anderson). And they all live well and happy and free thanks to Grandpa’s real estate holdings and tax evasion (see below). Poppins, a character not from the play, kind of serves as our surrogate in the scene as we and he try to make sense of all that’s going on in this living room. You can immediately see why someone thought this wacky cast of characters would be a good fit for a sitcom, albeit not until the late ’80s and then not very successfully.
The following clip has a lot going on, including introductions to more of the ensemble, namely Kolenkhov (Mischa Auer — confidentially, I think he’s the one part of the film that stinks) and the start of a date between Tony Kirby (James Stewart) and other granddaughter Alice (Arthur). First, though, is the great Charles Lane as an IRS agent telling Grandpa that he’s “got to pay!” Of course, old man Vanderhof is a way ahead of his time Tea Party member and doesn’t believe in income tax, especially when it goes to stuff we don’t need like battleships and interstate commerce and supposedly the Constitution. If the agent made a better argument he could really stump Grandpa, but he just gets too frustrated, especially once the music and dancing and explosions start up.
Learning the Big Apple
Harsh times they were in 1938, when you could be sitting on a park bench talking rather progressively about solar power and along comes a gang of preteen ruffians promoting illegal public dancing. The little rascals in this scene are hawking their wiggling skills, offering for only a dime the chance to “lern” a step called The Big Apple. And Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur are up for the lesson until a mean old, fun-hating cop shows up. Nuts to that.
Long before John Lennon and Ferris Bueller went off about “isms,” Grandpa Vanderhof addressed the growing “ism-mania” that was ruining the world. People “catch” or latch onto an ism and they go to war over it. Or at least tell people, “Think the way I do or I’ll bomb the daylights outta you.” Grandpa is so wise. Too bad his genes don’t seem to have been passed completely onto his ditzy daughter.
A Rat With Hair On It
Capra sure loved to put people not used to black tie restaurants into these high class settings. Arthur gets to play the fool this time around, but fortunately she’s with down to earth Tony Kirby, who doesn’t take the fancy stuff too seriously (why does he take her there, then? Especially when his parents are also there?). The bit with Stewart pretending to hold back a scream, which leads to Arthur actually shrieking, is just fantastic. Following that is the false claim there’s a rats in the room. Not just any rats, though, rats with hair. That’s any rats, of course, which makes the statement even funnier.
There’s plenty more scenes that should be showcased, but as usual the Internet is limited in supplying my demand. The following is a tiny clip from a longer scene in which the Kirbys drop in for dinner at the Vanderhof-Sycamore-Carmichael home mistakingly on the wrong night (well, not mistakingly on Tony’s part). The confusion creates extra tension for the class-clashing clans and things just keep getting more and more awkward. In this instance, Penny insults Mrs. Kirby (Mary Forbes), and it’s a great opportunity to celebrate the talents of Edward Arnold. Not that I don’t love his voice but here we don’t get that, only the priceless cutaways to his facial expressions as he reacts with shock and amusement.
If you’ve never seen You Can’t Take It With You because you’ve heard it’s no good, do yourself a favor and give it a shot. It’s currently available to rent from Netflix and buy via iTunes. You can also stream the film free if you have an Amazon Prime account.