Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
An entertaining film that's one of Frank Capra's brightest, You Can't Take it With You is a
good starting point to discuss this problematic populist filmmaker. Columbia TriStar's new DVD is
not the best way to see it, however.
Sentimental widower Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) presides over a household
of eccentric individualists. He's long ago quit from business; his son-in-law makes fireworks in the
basement; his daughter Penny (Spring Byington) writes plays because a typewriter was mistakenly
delivered to the house one day. Penny's daughter Essie (Ann Miller) is an untalented but energetic
dancer married to a student (Dub Taylor) who plays the xylophone. Hangers-on include a dour Russian
freeloader (Mischa Auer) and a budding novelty inventor named Poppins (Donald Meek) who Grandpa
invites into the family unit. Oh, and there's also granddaughter Alice (Jean Arthur), who's secretly
engaged to Tony Kirby (James Steward), the son of New York's most ruthless financial tycoon, Anthony
P. Kirby (Edward Arnold). When Tony's stuffy folks find out what the Vanderhofs are like, there's
bound to be trouble - especially because Vanderhof's house is all that stands in the way of Kirby
closing a monstrous deal to open a gigantic munitions factory.
How does one start? Turn off your brain, and You Can't Take it With You is delightful. Young
Jean Arthur and James Stewart are charming beyond words, the jokes are funny, the direction peppy,
and there's a good feeling to be had by all. So why, when this movie is over, do I have the feeling
someone picked my pocket?
You Can't Take it With You has everything that's right and wrong with Frank Capra, right up
front. His excellent direction, emphasizing character and energy over slick camera work, can't be
faulted, unless bad continuity and fairly stagey blocking are the only measure of talent. He directs the cast with
an exuberance and an eye for the effective 'bit' that brings out the maximum from a script, without
going over the edge. Capra has a keen sense for the funnybone and the heartstring of the 'average
American', an animal that may actually have existed in the homogenized culture of the 1930s.
Capra's brand of open sentimentality and homily-embracing warmth was called 'Capra Corn', a derisive
term which soon got turned on its head, to connote his positive entertainment values. The image is
of resentful intellectuals grumbling about the popularity of a man with nothing to say, but who
says it so successfully.
Savant's at odds with Capra, and would like to preface the criticism that follows with the simple
observation that watching a Capra film is likely to be a pleasant experience for most people,
especially those who are looking for a good time. But it requires turning a blind eye to the
entire thematic content of the picture. 1
Grandpa Vanderhof is given a tart speech decrying the accumulation of 'isms' in modern life -
socialism, fascism, etc. But Capra's basic appeal is populism, the kind a popular politician
utilizes, that really translates as know-nothing-ism. Vanderhoff relates to the world entirely
within the terms of a greeting card, the kind that Mr. Deeds might write. Nobody else has anything
of value to contribute - political scientists, economists - they're all irrelevant, just a bunch of
negative thinkers selling an 'ism' of one kind or another. Grandpa, however, gets to spout off
and have the last word on every subject. He dresses down the haughty Anthony Kirby, basically
telling him his values are worthless. Then, of course, he 'apologizes' in that peculiar American
way that says he doesn't want to be responsible for the hurt he's caused, because, after all, he
still believes every word he said.
Capra and Riskin (and Kaufman and Hart?) have of course rigged their world to support Vanderhof's
position. In his casting to type, and his relentless use of pre-existing audience bias, Capra
loads his case with shameless manipulation. Eccentric people are all, without exception, charming,
sweet, and harmless. The inhabitants of Vanderhof manor are adorable,
partial-personality child-people, like the Seven Dwarfs. Yet we don't respect most of them,
not really. 4
Donald Meek's meek
inventor is so unprepossessing that he becomes almost invisible after his first scene. Newlyweds
Ed and Essie, of the xylophone and ballet tutu, are presented as complete morons - but loveable,
harmless morons. Watch them react in the many group shots, and you'll see them pulling faces like
dumb cartoon characters. They're really only there to put some movement into static scenes. Only the leading roles are given the right to have depth. Stewart and Arthur
present themselves as whole human beings, mainly because the actors fill them with meaning,
nuance, and the subtle communication of intelligence. It's a charismatic conspiracy ... only Stars
exist. "Short people got no reason..."
Broad caricatures can work, even when the show involved has a social agenda. The television sitcom
All In the Family began with the actors
playing points of view, not real people. Archie was a bigot, his wife a ditz. When the characters
later developed and grew more complex, then there was chemistry. But when they 'humanized'
so much that Archie's insults no longer made sense - how could that sweet guy be so insensitive? - the show
lost its balance of conflict.
Even though Capra packs his movies with crowds of people, he doesn't like or trust people.
All of his pictures have stars who are funny, sexy, and intelligent, backed by 'support' people,
who are thin to the point of insulting caricature. They make faces and 'feel' things with plenty
of gusto, but it's if they're on a different career path. They don't count, they're amusing but
irrelevant. The heroes will find happiness, success,
love, sex and fulfillment, and the 'little people' will just have to keep plodding along, wearing
good attitudes to ward off their miserable fates. Capra's pictures have to answer to more than
the usual Hollywood lack of consistency, because openly profess a concern for, and the answers
to, social problems: they claim to have The Answers.
Vanderhof's neighbors are the perfect example of Capra 'little people'. They rush around looking for leadership, not
having a brain among them, and then are ridiculously trusting of Grandpa's paternal assurance that
he'll not get them all evicted by selling his house. When Grandpa does sell, his broken promise
never becomes an issue. If he previously cared about them, he has totally forgotten. And these are the
legion of 'good people' who rushed to the courthouse at midnight to contribute pennies to Vanderhoff's
defense. Capra has used them to get his patented, pandering rush of goodwill, and now they can shove
director uses them as cynically as a vigilante uses a lynch mob. The platitudes and homilies used
by Vanderhof, Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith and even to some extent George Bailey (a special case), hook both
the 'little people' in the movies, and the audience too. The neighbors are saps. Note that the script
never invites any of them into the house.
For a villain, Capra and Riskin give us the tower of jelly known as Anthony P. Kirby. Edward Arnold
specialized in playing dynamic but flawed tycoons: Capra would use him again as a Hitler-like
demagogue in his most overcooked batch of bad politics, Meet John Doe. Kirby is that mythical
man of industry that persists in pop culture, the Daddy Warbucks who can pilot industries and mold
the nation, yet deep down inside, is just a hurt little boy who doesn't realize that (sniff) people
don't love him. Obviously there are a zillion zealous overachievers who neglect their home life, but
Kirby is pitched as a tinpot King Lear, a brainy whiz who doesn't realize that he's losing the love
of his son. Naturally, he needs harmonica lessons to straighten him out.
Harmonica lessons are just the tip of the iceberg of You Can't Take it With You's know-nothing
philosophy. Vanderhof quit working 30 years before, yet somehow has money in his pocket to buy
frankfurters and sauerkraut. Is he an 'ism' guy, a capitalist living off investments? The American champions he name-drops (Jefferson, Washington, etc.) were
vitally interested in the political realities of 'isms' that Vanderhof disdains - America wasn't
created by a stroke of God's finger, but a bunch of intellectual
revolutionaries who formulated an idealistic but practical compromise of older social philosophies.
The political 'sophistication' sold here is to spout cheap jokes about Reds and Marxism, with a
cornball freeloading Russky around for laughs. Funny how that, when the Vanderhofs are taken to
court, it's for misdemeanors and an illegal fireworks charge. They were arrested for advocating
Communist revolution, for crying out loud. Today, they'd be branded a terror network,
and held incommunicado in the interest of Homeland Security. 3
If this were a total fantasy, there'd be no harm, but You Can't Take it With You makes its
playground the very real world of people in relation to a philosophy of practical living. The overt
message is to drop out like Vanderhof and Poppins, follow your heart's desire and let God take
care of you as he does the lilies of the field. The only alternative presented is to become a grubbing
cog in a system of greed. Capra really preaches a primitive form of Anarchism, one still sold by
the pundits. Do your own thing, turn your back on reality. Let somebody else make the sewers
work, pay the firemen, and worry about society as a whole. True love always triumphs, and the
nastiest villains are really creampuffs. And no
problem is bigger than one's personal emotions. Capra is an Anarchist-know-nothing-fantasist. 5
The problem is that so much of You Can't Take it With You is a joy to watch. Jean Arthur is
luminous. Stewart is so charismatic, his impossible character (spoiled brat who screams = wise soul
with deep roots) works fine. The idiots in the Vanderhoff household are endearing. Donald
Meek panders too much, but crusty Dub Taylor (a Capra discovery for this film) is delightful. Along
with his posturing and face-pulling, Edward Arnold has the delightful moment when he gloats at
the lampooning of his wife's belief in spiritualism. And then there's the amazing H.B. Warner, who
crashes into Kirby's boardroom like an avenging angel. Too bad that the script just gives him a
bunch of toothless platitudes to deliver, like a singing telegram. Or that his demise doesn't make
sense. When companies and corporations buy each other out, the top men get paid off ... it's
the working schlubs who suffer. 2
Sadly, Columbia TriStar's DVD of You Can't Take it With You is not only NOT up to their norm of
excellence, it is a shockingly poor presentation, scarcely better than what you'd expect from
a public-domain release. The film elements used are many generations down from original, and the
sound is especially rough. Either my ears have completely gone, or it's really hard to hear -
I had to turn the subtitles on to catch all the dialogue.
The big question is, why release this mess? Most of Columbia's other classics have been given
substantial facelifts for DVD. You Can't Take it With You is no ordinary library
title, but one of Columbia's golden Capra titles. Nobody touched this one. It reminds me of
the previous hodgepodge laserdisc release, but with poorer audio.
A real mystery. Sony's awash in Spiderman profits this year, yet some force is subverting
the reputation of their superb DVD department.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
You Can't Take It with You rates:
Movie: Schizophrenic reply: Excellent film of a dreadful philosophy
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 22, 2003
1. From a famous play, You Can't Take it With You was screenwritten
by Robert Riskin, a writer who once reacted to Capra taking full credit for the success of his pictures
by complaining that, hey, a writer wrote them. The argument peters out when you look at the string of
Capra movies by varying writers that have a consistent streak of tone and quality. When Riskin tried
to duplicate the Capra touch in his production Magic Town, even using Jimmy Stewart, he used the same
populist framework, but little of the charm.
2. Capra's economic and social acumen is as warped as that of the 80s politicians who
effectively talked us into hating our own government, and surrendering it to them. If Grandpa Vanderhof
was in Metropolis, he'd tell us to destroy the machines, and tell the workers and the rulers
to iron out their differences by playing harmonicas. Just Say No. United We Stand.
3. Gee, those silly laws that keep us from making fireworks in our residential
neighborhoods. Why can't the Government relax? The film's know-nothing dumbness, puts forward the
popular notion that all would be fine if the outsiders just got off our backs. Then we could have cool
fireworks shows in rock nightclubs.
4. Contrast them with Billy Wilder's 7 Dwarf clones in Ball of Fire,
all a bunch of kooks, but all professionals to be respected. And they're not entirely emasculated
fools - when one of them recounts the totally asexual romance of his youth, we think beyond his
kookiness to a serious contemplation of life and love.
5. The only reason Granpa Vanderhof 'gets away' with being superior to the
Kirbys, is the screenplay's insistence on the fact. The moral structure reminds me of M.A.S.H.,
where the 'righteous' cool doctors have an unspoken license to criticize and harass the square straights.
They browbeat, bait, and humiliate people with different viewpoints on religion and the military, until
they go crazy (Robert Duvall) or collapse in defeat. Hot Lips Houlihan is just like Mrs. Kirby in this
respect. She's fair game for all manner of insults, etc., and in the end we see both being 'reprogrammed'
almost against their will. Mischa Auer slaps Mrs. Kirby on the back when she's not paying attention,
makes a joke (right in front of her face) that she's coming around to being their kind of person. Capra
not only doesn't respect his characters, he gives Vanderhoff the right to aggressively impose his supposedly
enlightened philosophy on others.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson