Saturday, September 24, 2011

Worth Watching: You Can't Take It With You (1938)

Title: You Can't Take It With You
Director: Frank Capra
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

Alice (Jean Arthur) and Tony (Jimmy Stewart) are in love. Alice comes from a household of fun, free artistic people presided over by her grandpa, Martin (Lionel Barrymore). Tony comes from society's upper crust; his father, the arrogant and powerful Mr. Kirby (Edward Arnold), is a banker. Martin is already a thorn in Mr. Kirby's side; his refusal to sell his house prevents Mr. Kirby from completing a lucrative deal. At last the families meet, in an evening that includes fireworks, a wrestling match, some jail time, and a courtroom scene with an adorable judge (Harry Davenport).

The film features a house full of eccentric people, so it has at least one good thing going for it right there. My favorite of the bunch is Alice's mother, Penny (Spring Byington), a sweet absent-minded lady who writes plays at her desk in the main room as fireworks rumble from the cellar, and her other daughter, Essie (Ann Miller), dances ballet while setting the table; Essie is supposed to be clumsy, so Ann Miller does her best to look like an amateur dancer. Another character I like is Mr. Poppins (Donald Meek) who is rescued by Martin from a mindless job and installed as a permanent house guest, working mostly from the cellar on his masks and mechanical toys. I don't remember if the movie ever explains how Martin has enough money to support a large household. Maybe he worked for years and saved up, or maybe he really never paid any taxes.

cast pub still - you can't take it with you 1938

The wily and kind Martin, played wonderfully by Lionel Barrymore, is contrasted with the avaricious Mr. Kirby whose values slowly shift from the jail scene onwards. Mr. Kirby's character development is one of the best parts of You Can't Take It With You - it's a gradual dawning, as he realizes that he's a distant father with little joy in his life and no true friends. Edward Arnold is a subtle expressive actor, and I loved one point in the film when he's in an elevator and the doors open on a large board room full of men hungrily applauding him and waiting to gorge on the profits he'll make from a landmark deal; the close-up on his face shows dismay and spiritual exhaustion, in a powerful moment.

His son, Tony, was never cut out to be a banker. Stewart plays Tony as goofy, gallant, and mischievous - which makes him a delicious romantic lead; he's the kind of guy who can laugh at himself while softly and confidently flirting and moving in for a kiss. In the course of the film he grows up a little and takes his first steps away from the life that's been laid out for him since birth.

Like Tony Alice is also different from her family, but she has a close loving relationship with them. Of everyone in her family Alice is the least eccentric, though even she prefers sliding down banisters to taking stairs. Jean Arthur makes Alice sensible without being boring, and gentle without being meek. She has a quiet feistiness, and in the courtroom scene the underlying steel in her emerges.

Alice and Tony are in love from the start. What they need to figure out is how to marry happily when they come from such different backgrounds. Alice's family likes Tony, but Tony's family, particularly his haughty mother (played by Mary Forbes), thinks Alice is unsuitable.

As Alice and Tony's relationship is tested, a fellowship slowly forms between Martin and Mr. Kirby. Martin at one point loses his temper and berates Mr. Kirby, then apologizes and gives him a harmonica. The harmonica becomes the symbol of their friendship, and of the simpler happier life that Mr. Kirby wants to settle into by the end. Martin effectively rescues Mr. Kirby much as he did Mr. Poppins.

Tony, Alice, Martin and Mr. Kirby

Though class conflicts are central to the film, at its heart it's more about what's important in life. The film's title comes from the observation that you can't take money with you to the grave and beyond; if you're letting your heart wither as you pursue wealth, if it gets to the point where you're sacrificing everything and everyone for it, then what kind of life are you leading?

Memorable sights and sounds
Harmonicas lead to happiness. A harmonica duet has the power to reunite quarreling lovers and give them hope.

I didn't see this film primarily as a comedy though there are funny moments throughout. Jimmy Stewart screaming like a murderous toddler is among them (in the very same scene where he offers a marriage proposal). He's showing Alice how since infancy all he's ever needed to do to get what he wants is yell loudly enough. Stewart's comedic talent also extends to some awkward dancing and the mild, natural way in which he says funny things.

Stand-out scenes
The courtroom scene is a highlight, with all of Martin's friends from the neighborhood showing up in contrast to Mr. Kirby's four lawyers. This is the scene were Alice makes a stand against her future in-laws' snobbery, and Mr. Kirby is already beginning to see how impoverished his existence is.

I enjoyed all the scenes with Tony and Alice too, when it's just the two of them. They banter, confide in one another, and bring love and levity to stuffy places like Tony's office or a high-end restaurant.

Tony and Alice on a date

Further thoughts
Sometimes the film drags along or a point is belabored. Regardless it has a heart and a strong cast of characters. One of the lessons it leaves you with is not to live an anxious miserly existence. Love your life and the people in it and don't live in constant fear.

*All images link back to their sources (Flickr; Flixster (community); Wikipedia).