1930s, 4/4, Best Picture Winner, Comedy, Frank Capra, Review

You Can’t Take It With You

Frank Capra saw the play You Can’t Take It with You by George Kaufman and Moss Hart and immediately wanted to make a film of it. Using his power as president of the Academy in contract negotiations with Harry Cohn, president of Columbia, to buy the rights and grant the assignment to Capra, an effort that led to his third Best Director Oscar and second Best Picture win. Released after one of the major dips within the Great Depression, it’s a wholesome tale of the common man finding common cause with the upper classes in their common humanity. It feels like textbook Capra, written by Robert Riskin, and it has a wonderful impact more than seventy years later.

Anthony Kirby (Edward Arnold) is banker who comes home from Washington DC having secured the approval of Congress to proceed with an attempted monopoly of arms manufacture in America. His son, Tony (James Stewart) is something of a dreamer whom his father has been grooming to enter into the banking business, in the family tradition. He is in a relationship with his stenographer Alice (Jean Arthur) who is part of a large family led by the patriarch, her grandfather Martin (Lionel Barrymore), a dreamer himself who uses his modest wealth to maintain a household of people encouraged to pursue their own passions. Her mother Penny (Spring Byington) writes plays. Her father Paul (Samuel S. Hinds) makes fireworks in the basement. Her sister Essie (Ann Miller) dances under the instruction of Potap (Mischa Auer) while her husband Ed (Dub Taylor) plays the xylophone. There’s a small subplot where Kirby is trying to buy up a section of the city to build a munitions factory, a section that includes the central house that Martin politely and good-naturedly refuses, even going to the real estate office where he meets a bookkeeper Mr. Poppins (Donald Meek) with a propensity for making small toys in his spare time, a skill that Martin appreciates and invites Mr. Poppins into the house for a spell.

The heart of the film is, surprisingly, the elder Kirby, and I think that’s a change from the original play (that I’ve never read nor seen performed). It’s less about the zany antics of the Martin household and more about the melting of the icy heart of the upper classes who have lost connection with the common man in the pursuit of material wealth. The path of that is through the relationship between his son and Martin’s granddaughter.

The first half of the film is dedicated to the building of the wide array of characters, setting up the framework for the latter half of the film, and it’s solid fun. The interplay of the characters within the house is amusing, especially when Mr. Poppins is introduced to the household (our introduction), and when Tony comes to visit, a proposal hanging in the air, there’s a very fun little episode as he watches Martin politely and kindly tells off a representative of the IRS when he comes to collect back taxes (that Martin had never paid on principle). Martin may be odd, but he’s not some gadfly without purpose. He’s a man dedicated to keeping in touch with what he finds important in life, and that is the people around him.

The back half of the film revolves around a dinner between Martin’s family and the Kirbys. Tony intentionally brings his parents on the wrong day, hoping to find a way to get his parents to discover the charm of the family he’s marrying into, but it turns into a disaster. There had been plans for a big fireworks spectacle that Mr. Poppins had had the idea of theming with the Russian Revolution. Ed had handed out pamphlets to get people excited about it in candy that they sell, and it attracted the attention of the police because they thought he was organizing a real revolution. They come to arrest him while the Kirbys are there, but the fireworks all go off in the basement at once because of an accident. This leads to everyone getting arrested.

It’s in jail where the senior Kirby is brought down the most, trapped in a large cell with the bums of the city and his potential in-laws. It leads to him letting out his true feelings about Martin and his family, about how there’s a world of difference between him and the rest, and it leads to Martin being angry for the only time in the film, telling off Anthony Kirby about how he has nothing.

This gets demonstrated in classic Capra fashion with the people of the neighborhood coming out in the middle of the night to night court to give Martin their support naturally while Kirby has to beg and plead to get into contact with his own lawyers, the only ones who show.

There’s a great use of images through the film that really helps carry the emotional implications and delivers the emotional punches that the film puts out. First is the obvious one: a harmonica. A gift from Alice to Martin early in the film, it’s a common connection with Anthony whom Tony describes as having played the harmonica in his youth. Martin drops the harmonica into Tony’s pocket in the prison, and he carries it through the rest of the film, using it as a visual device that gets literally thrown back and forth on a table at one point as he goes back and forth on his desire to continue as he is or forge a new path. The other image is talked about early, about how Martin had had a good job thirty-five years earlier, but one day, as he rode up the elevator to his job, he decided that he wasn’t having any fun. So, he just went back down and never went back. This gets repeated late, and that it doesn’t get explicitly commented on is what gives the moment its power. It works wonderfully well, capturing everything we need to know about the character in that moment.

There’s a resolution that brings everyone together in heartwarming fashion, and it never feels cheap or unearned because the characters created are so rich and detailed, the events so clearly designed for the development of those characters, and the performances always feel so genuine. The obvious centerpiece if Barrymore as Martin, and, despite the physical pain he was evidently going through during the whole shoot, he is a delightful rock on which the film is based. The supporting cast is well utilized, especially the young Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur, but it’s Edward Arnold’s performance as the elder Kirby that really provides the emotional core of the film. The story ends up his, and his subtle shifts over the film culminate in the film’s best moments.

This is a treasure of a film. Frank Capra working at the top of his powers in Hollywood to intelligently and effectively translate from another medium into cinema.

Rating: 4/4


2 thoughts on “You Can’t Take It With You”

  1. I’m going to start out with praising the film before I start complaining. I love the performances in this movie and it is pure Hollywood fantasy in all the best ways. Capra uplifted his audiences and that is a skill damn few directors know how to do anymore. Are there any? John Lassiter, maybe…

    This was one of the first plays I was ever in (in High School) and I still vividly remember the characters. The power of good characters will carry even a sub-par movie. I don’t think this one is sub-par. It’s a movie though, it’s an ideal. It is as much a film about impractical idealism as Ferris Beuller’s Day Off and there’s a similar desire for Sub-Genius Slack in it.

    I’m torn by it. On the one hand, you have the struggle of man vs the state and the individual vs the Oligarchy. My sympathies are firmly on the side against the State and the Oligarch. On the other hand, you have SPECTACULARLY impractical people who are basically useless parasites who can’t take care of themselves, earn a wage, or raise a family without someone else footing the bill.

    Yet, there’s a secularized Christian-lite message here: material things don’t matter…in the long run. I agree with that. On the other hand, in the short run, you need to take care of business and live in this world while you live in this world. Render unto Ceasar, that which is Cesar and render unto God, that which is God’s. Not paying your taxes is like trying to stop an army with an upraised hand. Grandpa Martin wants to be a martyr but because this is a Capra film, he won’t have to be.

    Maybe the ending message is a bit like ‘Demolition Man’ where one side needs to get a little dirty and the other side needs to get a lot clean.


    1. By some coincidence, I watched Mr. Deeds Goes to Town the other day, and I think it helps inform my view in what Capra was trying to say. It was about using personal wealth responsibly, something that obviously resonated with mass audiences in the middle of the Great Depression. Grandpa here is similar to Gary Cooper’s Deeds in that he took his wealth (more modest wealth here) and found a way to help people come out of lives of drudgery and find ways to do what they love.

      I also think it’s important to note that these aren’t complete layabouts. Paul works in the bakery. Anthony designs fireworks that he sells. Grandpa’s wife seems to be the only real layabout as she writes plays that never get performed, but at least she’s working. I think it’s important that Grandpa is obviously and explicitly against the income tax as well. He knows how to make good with his own money better than the government can, and he’s not afraid of making it plain to the IRS man. I don’t get the sense that Grandpa is against the income tax because he’s against funding the government, but for the same reasons people still call the income tax immoral: it was his labor that made the wealth, and the government deciding that it has a greater claim on his wealth is wrong. He just uses Will Rogers-like rhetoric to make the point.

      I’m firmly on Team Grandpa, is what I’m sayin’.

      Also, Jean Arthur is always cute as a button.


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