You Can’t Take It With You, 1938, Columbia Pictures. Starring Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold. Directed by Frank Capra. B&W, 126 minutes.
Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) once was a highly successful businessman, but some 35 years before gave it up for his current carefree lifestyle. He lives in a madcap environment, with his would-be writer daughter (Spring Byington), inventor son-in-law (Samuel S. Hinds), dancer-in-training granddaughter (Ann Miller), some odds and ends of friends, and perhaps the most stable of the bunch, another granddaughter, Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur).
Alice is the only one of the clan who has an actual job, working for the Kirby conglomerate as secretary for no less than the heir to the fortune, Tony Kirby (James Stewart), the one decent employee in the organization’s executive management.
Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold), head of all Kirby enterprises and father of Tony, has received the go-ahead from Congress for a munitions monopoly, and in an effort to put the competition out of business has bought up nearly all the property surrounding its factory. The only holdout is Vanderhof, who has no intention of selling the family home.
In the meantime, Tony and Alice have fallen in love and plan to get married. Unaware of his father’s intentions for his fiancée’s home, Tony schemes to have his parents meet her offbeat family in an everyday situation of complete chaos, and not the nicely planned “normal” scenario Alice would put together.
Things start to fall apart at that impromptu dinner, but as they say, sometimes that has to happen before all can be made right. Vanderhof has a valuable lesson to teach the elder Kirby, and Tony and Alice have roadblocks to overcome in their pursuit of true love.
The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and won two, for Best Picture and Best Director. Other nominations included Best Supporting Actress for Spring Byington and Best Writing (Screenplay) for Robert Riskin, who adapted the immensely popular play of the same name by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. The play is said to have been more satirical in nature about the ideals of the Vanderhof clan than the Capra adaptation, and some critics called it superior to the movie, nonetheless, the film was a box-office hit.
Frank Capra looked for a particular type of leading man for the role of Tony Kirby, one who, like Gary Cooper had done in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, portrayed an idealized American with impeccable values and character. He’d seen James Stewart in Navy Blue and Gold and felt he had those qualities, as well as intellect and an “Ivy League idealism.”
Jean Arthur was another favorite of director Capra’s, who tolerated her stage fright and nervousness because the end result was well worth it. Arthur and Stewart shared a great chemistry, as seen clearly in a scene Capra later said he used to draw the audience in to the intimacy of their romance. In it, Tony reveals his great regret at losing sight of a dream of scientific pursuit he had as a young man.
You Can’t Take It With You is a fun film with a typical Capra-esque idealism and search for higher values. It runs a little long and at times is a bit over-the-top, but the performances of this stellar cast make it worth the watch.