Acting Quite Human: You Can't Take It With You (1938)


When Frank Capra saw George Kaufman and Moss Hart's You Can't Take It With You on Broadway in 1936, he wrote that he was "convinced that here is one of the finest comedy dramas of our time -- a great idea told through comedy." Apparently others agreed; the play was a huge success and ultimately won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Capra knew he wanted to film the story for Columbia, but with the screen rights set at an unprecedented $200,000 ($3.5 million in 2016 money!), studio head Harry Cohn refused to acquire the property. However, when Capra sued Columbia for attaching his name to the British release of If You Could Only Cook, Cohn changed his tune and bought You Can't Take It With You to help mollify the director.

Although there are stronger Capra films, You Can't Take It With You is still essential Capra. The romance between Jean Arthur and Jimmy Stewart is simple and sweet. The characters are idiosyncratic, humorous, and authentic. The script is sharp yet retains its genuine sentimentality. It's true that Capra wasn't the original creator of YCTIWY, but he added a lot to it to release it from the confines of the stage. Scenes outside of the Sycamore home were written, such as the ones at the bank. Capra also focused more on the battling ideologies of Grandpa (Lionel Barrymore) and Anthony Kirby (Edward Arnold) than the play did. It's a credit to screenwriter Robert Riskin that such additions were incorporated seamlessly.

Capra's adaptation became a smash at the box office and a success with critics. It was nominated at the Academy Awards in seven categories, winning Best Picture and Best Director, making it Capra's third and final directorial win in just five years. (He would later lose the statuette for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life.)

YCTIWY is essentially about the indifference and moral corruption of the wealthy versus the happiness and fulfillment of the poor. The film examines this by looking at the Kirby and the Sycamore families. It isn't exactly groundbreaking material, but it is entertaining and there are still lessons we can cull from the film. The Sycamores, headed by Grandpa, are firm believers that you should do what makes you whole, regardless of money or others' expectations. Everything will fall into place if you are kind, decent, and understanding. With the Kirbys, prestige, reputation, and financial success are everything. Their viewpoint is challenged, though, by something unavoidable and wholly unexpected: love. Not just any love, either -- the love between son Tony (Stewart) and one Alice Sycamore (Arthur).

Tony and Alice are the outliers in their families -- kind of. From the second we meet Tony, we know he is different than his father. While Mr. Kirby is all bluster as he celebrates an upcoming business monopoly with his yes men, the camera periodically cuts to Tony, quietly seated amongst the standing men. He appears uncomfortable and out of place as he suppresses a yawn. You can tell this isn't where he wants to be, but it's where he feels he needs to be, beside the old man in the family business.


When we next see Tony, he is doing what many rich men do in old movies: canoodling with his secretary. However, in this film, it isn't dirty or tragic; it's clean, pure, and just downright adorable. With Alice, Tony is no longer bored or uneasy. He is vibrant, flirtatious, and completely head over heels. He doesn't have to conform to anything as he holds Alice's hands and kisses her face while she answers the phone and giggles. When Mr. Kirby assures his wife that "boys like Tony don't marry stenographers," we cut to Tony breathlessly telling Alice "Sometimes you're so beautiful, it just gags me." The Kirbys will soon become painfully aware that this isn't some silly office fling.

Alice is very much connected to her family, but she's also like the black sheep (although they would never call her that). No one in the family has a real job except for Alice. She seems to be the least frivolous and most levelheaded person in the house. And then she comes flying down the banister yelling "Wheeee!" with her hair in curlers. Alice isn't as outwardly outlandish as those around her, but she's definitely still a Sycamore.

There is a marvelous moment that perfectly illustrates how well-suited Tony and Alice are for each other. When they have an impromptu dance party in the park with some kids teaching the Big Apple, Tony pins the kids' sign onto Alice's cape. Both forget about it... until they arrive at a swanky restaurant for dinner and run into Tony's parents. Everyone in the place snickers at the sign to the couple's confusion. When Tony realizes what they're laughing at, he walks backward with Alice to their table so his parents and their tablemates won't see, knocking over plates and waiters in the process.

 
At their own table, Alice voices her belief that their families should meet right away before they're married. Tony doesn't really find it necessary since he and Alice will love each other regardless. As she goes on about the importance of their meeting, Tony talks at the same time. "You know, every time I think of how lucky I am, I feel like screaming," he muses. He then describes the scream starting in his toes as it slowly makes its way up to his throat. Realizing that Tony is seriously about to scream, Alice begs him to stop and starts to cover her ears. Right when it looks like Tony is about to let it out, Alice screams from the anticipation of it, which simultaneously embarrasses and delights them. Watch it here.

To play Tony and Alice, Capra couldn't have picked anyone better than Stewart and Arthur. They're so sincere and articulate in their acting. It's always interesting to me that despite their voices, Arthur's baby doll tones and Stewart's slow drawl, neither actor was pigeonholed into playing the stereotypes that go with those kinds of voices. Both radiated such intelligence and geniality. You know that line Rock Hudson uses on Doris Day in Pillow Talk? "I get a nice, warm feeling being near you. It's like being 'round a pot-bellied stove on a frosty morning." That's how it feels watching Stewart and Arthur.


Even though those two steal my heart every time I see YCTIWY, there is a different actor who steals the show: Lionel Barrymore. As Grandpa, Barrymore is perfection. Wise, kindhearted, and considerate, Grandpa is forever helping and encouraging others. Because of this, the Sycamore home has become a utopia of sorts, where you can be yourself without repercussion.

My favorite scene with Grandpa is when Alice talks to him about Tony. She's so happy that she is almost speechless and you can tell that Grandpa is thrilled for her. "Can't even talk about him, can
you?" he teases. "Not rationally," she replies. "Well, who's asking you to be rational?" he retorts. As their conversation goes on, Grandpa begins to speak about his late wife. It may be the most heartbreaking moment in the whole film. "Right up until the very last, she couldn't walk into a room without my heart going thump, thump," he wistfully says. The tenderness and love in Barrymore's voice and face is just beautiful.
Perhaps the finest scene from Barrymore, though, is when he scolds Kirby for his greed and self-serving attitude. Up until this, Grandpa has been nothing but patient and good-natured to Mr. and Mrs. Kirby, but when he discovers that it is Kirby who is snatching up his neighbors' properties and heckling Grandpa for his own, something inside of the man snaps. It is as if the magnitude of Kirby's indecency has become clear and Grandpa will not stand for it. With this scene, audiences experience catharsis through Barrymore as he tells Kirby what we have all been thinking.

Grandpa isn't the only one to call out the Kirbys. Both families are arrested thanks to a misunderstanding with the police (and secretly because of Kirby's desire to get some dirt on the Sycamores). While gathered in court, Mrs. Kirby refuses to tell the judge why they were at the Sycamore home because she wants to keep Tony and Alice's engagement a secret. (It's just too terribly gauche, you know.) When Grandpa gives a reasonable excuse to the judge and the Kirbys agree with it, Alice has had enough. She unloads on Mrs. Kirby and when Tony chirps in his support, Alice remarks "It's about time you spoke up! I've decided that it's your family that isn't good enough! Why, I wouldn't be related to a bunch of snobs like that for anything in the world!" I love this part for so many reasons, especially when a eavesdropping reporter tells the other reporters behind him "Cinderella just told Prince Charming to take a flying leap!"

What Alice doesn't quite understand, though, is something I suspect Grandpa knows: the Kirbys are good people, they've just lost their way. We see some evidence of this towards the end of the film. Tony points out to his father that they used to be able to talk, but something changed. Tony also tells us that in the past Mr. Kirby played the harmonica, an instrument that Grandpa plays throughout the movie. Whenever I watch Tony, I wonder to myself if we're seeing the man Mr. Kirby used to be. Did he go into banking because of family tradition or because he wanted to? Did he love someone like Alice but had to marry a person more well-bred like his wife? Tony tells Alice that it takes courage to live like the Sycamores do, and I think at some point the Kirbys just lost their courage. Bit by bit, with the help of Grandpa and his family, they regain it and, more importantly, their humanity.

To fully enjoy YCTIWY, you have to leave your cynicism at the door. To watch something so steady in its faith of people is refreshing in this age of doom-and-gloom filmmaking. This movie may seem charmingly old-fashioned, but its messages of following your happiness and keeping in touch with your morality are timeless. And luckily, that's something you can take with you.


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This post is part of the Third Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. You can check out the other entries here.

Comments

  1. I was certain I left a comment yesterday, but perhaps I forgot to press the button.

    I love your article on a movie that I scoff at, when cynicism overtakes me. I don't think that will ever happen again and I thank you for giving this charming back to me.

    PS: When Capra saw the play on Broadway I wonder what he thought of Henry Travers who played Grandpa.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for such a lovely comment! I'm pretty cynical myself, but filmmakers like Capra often bring out the optimist in me. It's impossible for me to watch one of his films and not feel inspired.

      That's a good question. I wonder if Capra mentions that in his autobiography (which I'm ashamed to admit I haven't read yet). I bet Travers was wonderful as Grandpa!

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  2. Awesome review Michaela! :) I really agree when you say "Although there are stronger Capra films, You Can't Take It With You is still essential Capra." I must admit it's not my most favourite one, but I did enjoy it for its simplicity and for the cast: James Stewart who is my favourite actor, Lionel Barrymore who delivers one of his best performances and Jean Arthur who is just adorable.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks! This film isn't my fave Capra, either -- I'm not even sure it's in my top 5. But it's a very well-made movie with an unbelievably bright cast.

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