Old-Fashioned American Uplift: Capra’s ‘You Can’t Take it With You’

You Can’t Take it With You one of Frank Capra’s biggest Depression Era hits, is a rambunctious, hopeful story that’s still relevant today.
By  · Published on June 7th, 2009

You Can’t Take It with You is a classic case of good old-fashioned American optimism, a celebration of family and small-town values courtesy of Frank Capra, who made a distinguished career out of such things. By the time of its release in 1938 films like It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town had already made Capra a household name, a premiere chronicler of the Depression era national mood and a primary spokesman for cinema’s ability to serve as a tonic, spreading good cheer among audiences that had experienced too little of it.

That history looms over every frame of what is one of the original quirky family dramedies, a direct ancestor of the entire genre of independent filmmaking devoted to such ventures today. It instills even the more banal, dated moments with particular resonance. One can sense in Capra’s joyful indulgence of the sheer chaotic nature of the life of the Sycamore family a fervent quest to entertain by outdoing even the most outlandish antics displayed in the film’s contemporaries, which remain some of the most memorable screwball comedies ever made.

Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin adapted You Can’t Take It with You from the Broadway play of the same name, created by the famous duo of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart and running on The Great White Way as the film went into production and release. An ensemble picture if ever there was one, it makes use of 153 parts in its telling of the story of the Sycamores, an extended family who live together in the same New York house.

A true collection of eccentrics, they spend much of their time in the living room, where daughter Penny (Spring Byington) pounds away on her typewriter, granddaughter Essie (Ann Miller) twirls around to the beat of a xylophone played by her husband Ed (Dub Taylor), her coach Boris Kolenkhov (Mischa Auer) frequently turns up to spout bombastic Russian stereotypes and Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) lords over everything as a the family patriarch. Frequently, Paul (Samuel S. Hinds), Penny’s husband, bounds upstairs from the basement, where he sets off fireworks and performs other silly experiments.

As the film opens this manic utopia is threatened by the plans of Wall Street icon Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold), who wants to buy out and evict the Sycamores and all of their neighbors. Grandpa Vanderhof refuses to sell, forestalling Kirby’s deal and giving the rest of the neighborhood hope of fending off business’s unwanted advance, a classic Capra motif. The archetypal relationship between Wall Street and “Main Street” homeowners, which we are all too familiar with today, is profoundly warped when Kirby’s son and heir apparent Tony (James Stewart) falls for Alice (Jean Arthur), another Sycamore granddaughter, and he and his parents come over for dinner.

Capra relies heavily on the strength of the personalities assembled, as the success of the work in large part hinges on how tolerable one finds the Sycamores. The lesser characters, like Ed, Essie and Penny, repeatedly engage in one basic activity and leave little impact. However, the compelling dimensions afforded the main characters perfectly compensate for the deficiencies in the formulation of these peripheral figures.

Arthur’s admirably unglamorous performance, filled with notes of tangible vulnerability brought on by her romancing by a scion of the elite, provides the emotional crux. Stewart, in his first collaboration with Capra, continues to refine the idealistic image that would serve him so well in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life and other future classics. Most affecting, however, is the dignity brought to the picture by Barrymore, a portrait of strength and quick wit as Grandpa Vanderhof, and Arnold, who refuses to play Kirby as a characteristically insensitive villain.

Though pitched as adversaries they are, in many ways, similar men. As the heads of their respective families each seeks above all, in his own way, to leave a legacy that ensures the happiness and success of his children. Every behavior, as sinister and heartless as it might initially seem, is in fact informed by that desire. In drawing out their shared humanity by giving the men cordial shared conversations, at least one angry confrontation and a surprisingly moving harmonica duet, Capra highlights the central belief in the goodness of men that in many ways defined his entire career.

That’s not to say the film, which won Best Picture and earned Capra the third of his three Best Director wins at the 1939 Academy Awards, doesn’t also serve as a cautionary tale. There’s no question the filmmaker’s sympathies lie with the Sycamores. His belief in ordinary families as a fount of wisdom, ingenuity and the other characteristics that make America what it is has rarely been more powerfully felt than in the contrast between the cold, aristocratic board rooms of Kirby’s company and the warmhearted, close-knit images of the homely living room, which buzzes with activity. It’s the sort of message people wanted to receive during the Great Depression, and it is still relevant today, as our society finds itself tested again.