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13 May 2016

You Can't Take It With You (1938)

Directed by: Frank Capra
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Starring: Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, 
James Stewart, Edward Arnold, 
Spring Byington, Mischa Auer, 
Ann Miller, Lillian Yarb
Once in a while, after a steady diet of my husband's choices in films (which I usually love, don't get me wrong!), I go onto Netflix and trawl their selections. The Netflix search algorithm is weird, by the way, and it does take some amount of time and effort to see what they have in their extensive collection. (If you're looking for a particular title, it is easier.) Anyway, long story short, I went on an extended Cary Grant / James Stewart spree, and put in a whole lot of movies that I hadn't either heard of, or hadn't watched. In order to quell rebellion within the ranks, I judiciously spread them all over our queue. So, even I'm not sure which movie will show up, when. This week was the turn of You Can't Take It With You. As always, my husband opened the envelope, looked at the title, and asked, 'Yours? Or mine?' One look at the star-cast confirmed it was my selection. But with Frank Capra directing it, he was less likely to make faces at me.

Capra's movies are usually feel-good films and this one's no exception. Based on the Pulitzer prize-winning play of the same name by George S Kaufman and Moss Hart, the film is set just after the Great Depression of the 1930s.
When the film opens, we are in the boardrooms of Kirby and Company, a large banking corporation that has withstood the vagaries of the Depression era and is now trying to expand operations. In a bid to conquer the munitions market, Anthony P Kirby (Edward Arnold) is buying up all the land he can so he can set up a munitions factory that will allow them to monopolise the field. His closest competitor, Ramsey, is going to find out how he's been checkmated, but only after the deal is signed, sealed and delivered. Unfortunately for Kirby Sr., one man is holding out. 
Kirby is furious when he realises that without that one house, belonging to one Mr Vanderhof, his magnificent plan will come to nought. He phones his real estate agent, a Mr Blakely (Clarence Wilson) and informs him that if he cannot get Vanderhof to sell, he can forget his commission. If he can't do it with money, there are surely other ways. 
Blakely, who has already bought the land in the surrounding 12 blocks, is worried - he has a lot of money sunk into the purchase, and if the deal falls through, he will lose everything he owns. He has a plan up his sleeve, however, and is very happy when his secretary announces that Mr Vanderhof is waiting outside to see him. Like all petty men, he figures that Vanderhof has his price, and so, asks his secretary to let the man cool his heels in the outer office for a while.
Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) is not one whit discomposed at having to wait. He's busy making small talk with a very busy accountant who's diligently totalling up the accounts. The accountant, a Mr Poppins (Donald Meek), is a meek man who has perhaps the gumption of a marshmallow rabbit. When pressed by Vanderhof to disclose what he is happy doing, the man nervously brings out a little mechanised musical rabbit - he makes them (and other things) in his spare time.
Vanderhof promptly invites him to come and live with him, and be a lily of the field like the rest of his family - everyone does only what they want to do. Poppins is awestruck - why, that must be wonderful! He is both amused and tempted. When Blakely finally deigns to come out to meet Vanderhof, it is to find his office staff crowded around Poppins's desk, looking at his creation in delight. 

This draws the nervous Blakely's ire, which is exacerbated by Mr Vanderhof's deflection of all his pleas to do discuss business with advice to take a vacation. Blakely's anger is now directed at Poppins - if it hadn't been for his infernal toy...! It proves to be the last straw... Poppins is now officially a lily. 

Poppins is soon introduced to the other 'lilies' in Vanderhof's field: there's Vanderhof's loony daughter, Paula Sycamore (Spring Byington), an aspiring playwright; her younger daughter, Essie Carmichael (Ann Miller), who's devoted to ballet but makes gourmet candy for her husband to sell; Essie's husband, Edward Carmichael (Dub Taylor); Paul Sycamore (Samuel H Hinds), Paula's husband, who along with DePinna makes fireworks; Rheba (Lillian Yarb), the cook-cum-housekeeper, and Donald (Eddie Anderson), her fiancé and the man-of-all-work; and DePinna (Halliwell Hobbes), the man who came to deliver ice to this madhouse nine years ago and stayed with them ever since. Also living there is Alice, Paula's and Paul's elder daughter, Jim, a pet raven and a little kitten that doubles as Paula's paperweight.

Despite his initial reservations, Poppins is thrilled to be amongst his own tribe - why Paul and DePinna have a 'shop' in the basement!

While all this has been going on, Anthony Kirby Jr/Tony (James Stewart), the newly minted Vice President of the company, is busy romancing his secretary, Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur). 
Madly in love with her,  he's not aware that his beloved is the granddaughter of the man who is proving to be a thorn in his father's side. Neither is Alice aware that her Tony's father is trying to drive her grandfather out of hearth and home. Blissfully happy with each other, Alice first becomes aware of her beloved's family's disapproval when Tony's mother walks in to find her only son draped across his secretary's desk.
Mrs Miriam Kirby (Mary Forbes) is worried - she doesn't mind him 'carrying on in the office', she tells her distracted husband; she's worried that he's getting serious about wanting to marry his secretary! Why, he even told her so the previous evening! Her husband thinks she's overreacting. Why, the girl is a stenographer! Boys like Tony don't marry stenographers! Mrs Kirby is not pacified - they have to do something about this girl. Kirby has no time to discuss his son's supposed love life; he brushes off his wife's worries.

Alice is worried as well, but Tony has no time for her fears - he's in love with her and that's all that matters. "If you scratch under the surface here somewhere there's a proposal lying around," he tells Alice quietly. Despite her reservations, she allows herself to be persuaded by Tony's sunny optimism. 
Meanwhile, Vanderhof, a much-loved figure in his neighbourhood, is met by the worried residents - unlike him, they are only tenants, and now, they are hearing that someone has been buying up all the buildings. The rumour is that a big factory is going to come up in this area. Vanderhof calms them down - he owns his house, and he has no intention of selling. Without his holding, whoever bought the land around them cannot do a damn thing! The crowd disperses, comforted that they won't have to move after all. 

Back at home, Alice has just come home to make a big announcement. A special young gentleman is coming to call for her, and she hopes she can introduce her family to him in small doses. To that end, she doesn't want her mother to read him any of her plays, or Essie to dance for him. Paula is ecstatic - the boss's son? And a Vice President? Well, they could have the wedding in this very room! 

Everyone's deflate when the doorbell rings and it is not Tony, as they expected, at the door, but a man from the Internal Revenue Service. However, their spirits rise when Tony walks in a few moments later. Much to the IRS man's irritation (and Tony's discomfiture), the whole family assembles to greet him.
While they put Tony through a gentler version of the Spanish Inquisition, the IRS man manages to get Mr Vanderhof to sit down and listen to him. As their discussion gets more and more heated, Vanderhof's answers amuse and delight Tony, until he can barely hide his laughter. Especially when Ed begins to play the xylophone, Essie begins to dance, Paula has gone back to her typewriter, and a rocket (made by Paul) whizzes past the window driving the horrified man from the IRS out of the house. 

Just as Tony and Alice decide to leave, in walks Mr Kolenkhov (Micha Auer), Essie's ballet master. A starving Russian émigré, he often comes in time for dinner, calling Essie his 'Pavlova'. (His private opinion of his student's talent is that she 'stinks'.)
Outside, Alice is explaining her family to her beau. Her grandfather was a businessman who gave it all up in order to collect stamps. Now, he's considered an expert in the field, and examines others' collections for a fee. Her father makes fireworks because he never grew up. Her mother writes plays because a typewriter was once mistakenly delivered to their house. Tony is intrigued by the harum-scarum family he's just met. They seem to be very, very happy indeed doing exactly what they want. He, on the other hand, has no idea what he wants to do, but knows that he doesn't like business. He'd had ideas when he was younger, but it takes courage to search for happiness, and he's not sure he has any himself. 
The evening, beginning so promisingly, deteriorates when they eventually make their way to an upscale restaurant for dinner. Tony and Alice run into his parents who are entertaining Lord and Lady Melville, and Governor and Mrs Leach, amongst others. It's very clear to Alice that Tony's folks place a great deal of importance on family and background. She decides that Tony's parents have to meet her family without much ado. Tony, who cares two whits about Alice's family tree or lack thereof, is damned if he will put his beloved's family on exhibition for his snobbish parents. Alice insists, however, and her insistence wins the day.

Tony's mother agrees to what Kirby Sr. sees as a farce, but Mrs Kirby has a point - when Tony sees his parents alongside Alice's dull, middle-class family, he will see that this relationship is untenable. 
If they resist, points out Mrs Kirby, they will lose their son. Kirby Sr. has no time for such subtlety, but he reluctantly goes along with his wife.  

At the Vandorf homestead, Alice is detailing her plans for the morrow. She needs to have the kitchen to herself all day, they'll have cocktails at 7, she wants the living room cleaned up... Her grandfather wants her to calm down; she'll be giving the Kirbys a very wrong impression of their household with all these dos and don'ts. From what he's seen of the 'boy', the Kirbys will be fine folks. 
Alice wants everything to be just right, however, and Paula is sympathetic. The best laid plans of mouse and men, however.... 

Tony brings his reluctant parents over that very night, when his beloved's eccentric family are at their worst (or best). 
That evening will rank as Alice's worst night ever. Especially when everything she's planned goes up in smoke.  
It's not to be the Kirbys' night either; Alice is mad at Tony because he deliberately ruined all her grand plans; Kirby Sr. has had it up to here with cops and jail cells and court cases and incompetent lawyers; what's more, he gets called a 'stupid idiot' by Vanderhof; Mrs Kirby doesn't find the company conducive to a good social outing, is particularly nasty towards Alice whom she blames for the night's chaos, and ends up having to hear some very pertinent home-truths.

Soon, Cinderella is fleeing Prince Charming, Alice goes missing, granddad is selling the old homestead, Tony decides he needs to find his happiness his own way, there's a dead body somewhere, cops and FBI agents, a very human judge, and Kirby Sr. finally remembers he used to play the harmonica...

 You Can't Take It With You was Capra's first film with James Stewart with whom he would go on to work in two other films - Mr Smith Goes to Washington and Capra's best-known (and probably best-loved) film, It's a Wonderful Life. It is certainly not as well known as this last one named, but You Can't Take It With You is a sweet little film of a more innocent time.

You Can't Take It With You is a very restrained comedy, most of it from the dialogues and the expressions of the various people, especially James Stewart. Billed lower than Jean Arthur and Lionel Barrymore, Stewart, then an upcoming star, was young and earnest and oh-so-charming. Especially in the scenes where he runs into his beloved's family eccentrics, and their whimsical ways.  James Stewart is one of my all-time favourites, and like Cary Grant, he always seemed to be a good 'un.

This is my second Jean Arthur film after Talk of the Town. Just as in that film, Arthur displays a flair for comedy here that makes her role as the 'secretary in love with her boss' work very well indeed. Add veteran Lionel Barrymore as the laidback 'grandpa of all the neighbourhood' and you have scope for some real witticisms. Some of the film's best lines are delivered by Barrymore. 

The film is peopled by a whole lot of character actors who bring in the required whimsy - the nervous Mr Poppins; the all-male DePinna, who has a penchant for posing as a Greek athlete; Ed, who is very interested in printing (which leads to his downfall); Essie, who cannot walk but must dance; Paul, who's looking to make ever-new fireworks; the dyspeptic Kirby Sr., who pays his doctors $10,000 a year but has to drink soda-bi-carb to aid his digestion; the snooty Mrs Kirby whom Wodehouse would have described as having an expression suggesting she 'smelled a nasty smell under her nose'; the always-starving Kolenkhov who has only one phrase to express his disdain for anything ranging from the Monte Carlo Ballet to Paula's painting to his student's performance - 'It stinks!' However, the film doesn't. 

If you're ever in the mood for a way to pleasantly fill a couple of hours,  and you like Jimmy Stewart, do watch.

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