Thursday, October 4, 2018

You Can't Take It With You (1938)

You Can't Take It With You won both the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for Frank Capra in 1938.

It’s an odd film, but it’s a Capra film so you expect that.

James Stewart plays Tony Kirby, the heir to the vast Kirby banking fortune. The Kirby fortune is based on a monopoly that has been achieved by the time-honoured methods of American business - by buying enough Congressmen and Senators to ensure the the company can do what it likes. So, typically for Capra, we immediately get a political angle. This is however not really the main focus of the film.

Tony Kirby wants to marry his secretary Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) but his parents disapprove very strongly indeed. So we have a story of love that must overcome obstacles but that’s not really the main focus of the film either.

The core of the film is the story of two very different families. The Kirby family likes money and power. That’s pretty much all they are interested in.

Alice’s family are proto-hippies. They live in the house belonging to the family patriarch, Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore). Vanderhof is a wealthy retired businessman. His house is filled to the rafters with assorted relations and assorted hangers-on. Some of them work occasionally in a desultory fashion but mostly they live off old man Vanderhof. They are free spirits who believe in creativity. In other words they’re unemployable. They don’t care very much about money. So the contrast is between the Kirbys who worship money and are therefore bad and unhappy and the Sycamore clan who are satisfied with just enough to live on and are therefore virtuous and happy.

OK, so undoubtedly there’s some truth to the idea that too much concern for money is unhealthy and that people who are satisfied with less are better off but the problem is that the movie assumes that having just enough is simply a matter of finding a wealthy benefactor like Vanderhof who likes having people sponging off him.

This is where this movie crashes and burns. Mr Deeds Goes To Town and Mr Smith Goes To Washington took Capraesque idealistic heroes and forced them to confront the unpleasant nature of the real world. This confrontation proved to be fruitful and it strengthened the heroes. It also forced them to examine their own idealism and to hone it to a razor sharp edge.

You Can't Take It With You takes place in a fantasy world in which idealistic heroes are able to rely on wishful thinking to create magical answers to problems.

We’re meant to see Vanderhof’s household as a collection of loveable eccentrics who are expressing their creativity but they’re not loveable, they’re just irritating. They’re also not believable, which makes them more irritating. They’re fake. They’re feeble one-joke characters and we get bludgeoned with that one joke over and over again.

Eventually Alice decides it would be a swell idea for Tony’s folks to meet her folks. Of course the evening quickly degenerates into chaos. The movie is trying so hard to be zany and crazy and fun but it’s just too contrived. The chaos is just chaos. It isn’t entertaining chaos.

There’s a court-room scene which will bring to mind the sanity hearing scene in Mr Deeds Goes to Town and the Senate scenes in Mr Smith Goes To Washington but the equivalent scene here just doesn’t have the same impact. There’s nothing much at stake. It’s a definite deficiency in Robert Riskin’s script. This big dramatic scene amounts to nothing more than a lovers’ spat.

Jean Arthur is a definite problem. She had a very distinct screen persona. I find it to be extremely annoying. And then there’s Lionel Barrymore, Hollywood’s greatest ham, being tedious and ingratiating. Being ingratiating is the big problem with this movie in general.

This movie lacks any real bite or focus. Devoting too much attention to making money is bad but it doesn’t suggest viable alternatives apart from the juvenile self-indulgence that would eventually culminate in the vacuousness of the counter-culture.

It also lacks a genuine hero. James Stewart is OK but Tony Kirby is a nonentity. Alice isn’t a character with much substance either. Edward Arnold as his mogul father Anthony P. Kirby and Lionel Barrymore as Vanderhof are really the central characters but that leaves the film without a viable hero figure. Kirby is a walking cliché until his sudden completely inexplicable and totally unconvincing character change. Vanderhof is just so jam-packed with folksy down-home wisdom that you want to cringe.

The Columbia Tristar DVD presentation is simply awful. The sound quality is so bad that it almost makes the film unwatchable.

I am now convinced that Frank Capra could and did make some remarkable, interesting and powerful films. You Can't Take It With You is not one of them. You Can't Take It With You is a complete cinematic turkey.

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