A World of Fragments

This is a blog for the review and discussion of films; all kinds of film, old and new, good and bad. Participation is always encouraged - even if you disagree! Leave me a comment, drop me a line. Heck, you might even want to recommend a movie...

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

You Can't Take It With You

Title: You Can't Take it With You (1938)
Dir.: Frank Capra
Stars: Lionel Barrymore, Jean Arthur, Jimmy Stewart

Viewed: on DVD (feature only)

This review contains MILD SPOILERS

I've come upon this film so many times on the Turner Classic Movies channel, it's nearly ridiculous. Unfortunately, each and every time, I've come in more than halfway through the picture, thus rendering it rather pointless to stop and watch. When I saw the DVD at the library this past weekend, though, I decided it was time to take the plunge and finally watch You Can't Take it With You for real. I'm glad I did.

If I sit back and think of Frank Capra pictures, I usually come up with the image of an "American experience" movie: well-intentioned, pleasing, grass-roots common-people patriotic, and sometimes a little overzealous. This film is no exception, but it's rather different from the Capra films most people remember - It's a Wonderful Life, of course, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington - in that it's far more comedic. To the modern viewer, that might seem like a strike against it; even I'm a bit skittish with the "controlled chaos" aspect of 1930s comedy. However, the bulk of the film is so sweet, so idealistic, and so good-naturedly funny it's impossible to dislike. And underneath it all, there's a message that still applies today: money is the root of all evil. Or, as the characters would be more likely to put it, money's not the point of living.

It's a simple setup. There's a wacky family, all engaged in their own hobbies and small moneymaking endeavors, who live in a big house presided over by Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore). Vanderhof is the only guy in town to resist takeover by the monopolizing banker Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold), but little does he know that his granddaughter (Jean Arthur) is seriously involved with Kirby's son (Jimmy Stewart). You can see where this is going, right? Simple American folk bungle their attempts to impress the rich future in-laws, while at the same time holding onto their values? Big businessman's cold heart is slowly but surely melted by honesty and happiness? Right, you've got it. No surprises here. It's all been done before, will all be done again, and in this case, it's a Pulitzer Prize-winning play - which are often moralistic to begin with - adapted and actually made more populist by that most moral of directors, Frank Capra. It feels like a play, sometimes to its detriment, and on occasion it feels like a moral tract. But it's a very entertaining one at that.

The joy of the film lies in the great characters. Everyone gets something to do, which is quite rare with a cast of some twenty individually-defined characters. Jimmy Stewart, of course, makes a great impression by sheer screen presence, even though he's one of the simpler, more obvious characters; at the same time, though, Harry Davenport (a very recognizable character actor), is just as memorable in a single scene. The standout performance is by Lionel Barrymore, and if you only know him as Mr Potter of It's a Wonderful Life, you've got a surprise coming. His character here stands for everything Mr Potter did not - and while we're on the standing issue, how cool is it that Barrymore is one of the very few truly successful disabled screen actors? This is the first film where his health required the use of crutches or a wheelchair, and it's explained in the context of the film in the most charming way I think I've ever seen. He steals whole scenes with quiet speeches and folksy humor; an early one, with the bank clerk Mr Poppins (Donald Meek, another notable character actor), is just possibly the highlight of the whole film. If you ever catch the start of the film but can't sit through it all, make sure you experience that scene, at least. It's magical.

The film is not without flaws, of course. Capra greatly restructured the second half of the play to fit his own pet themes, and it does feel like a sudden shift in tone. It also makes the film about twenty minutes too long, with what seems like a false ending - and then, oh wait, there's more. And while the family's various hobbies and tricks are all very entertaining, they do wear out the third or fourth time we're trotted through that same, very '30s "controlled chaos." (By then they start to remind me of the nadir of "zany" families, the Brewsters of Capra's later Arsenic and Old Lace, a film Cary Grant hated - and so do I.) Modern viewers will probably also be dismayed to see such an open-minded family with black servants (one of whom is the slightly underused Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, of The Jack Benny Show fame), but that's simply a product of the time - not only of the film's production, but of the earlier play.

I do heartily recommend the film, because even if it is a bit too long or a bit too moral, there's so much to enjoy it almost doesn't matter. It's nice to occasionally see a movie so irrepressibly idealistic and optomistic, and I challenge you not to finish watching the film without a big ol' happy grin on your face.

Sadly, what won't make you grin is the quality of the DVD compared to the price point. If it were a budget MGM or Fox disc of $10, the unrestored, slightly jumpy print would be acceptable, but not as a Columbia Classic of nearly three times that cost. There are no extras, only trailers - and don't be fooled, they're not even trailers for the film in question, nor films of the period (indeed, the included Mr Deeds is not the appropriate Frank Capra original, but the Adam Sandler remake!). Columbia seems to have missed the entire point of the film, haven't they? Unless you can find this disc extraordinarily cheap, give it a rent, or better still, find it at a library or on TV. The Vanderhof family would surely approve, and so do I.


  • At 12:37 PM, Blogger Michael Hickerson said…

    I just hate it when DVDs of such films don't include any extras of any value..or in this case, previews that aren't quite in line with the film in question...better to have nothing at all, really.

  • At 6:14 AM, Blogger Sarah Hadley said…

    Well, these were really, REALLY out of line with the movie - the new "Mr Deeds," 1995's "Sense and Sensibility," and the 1950s William Holden film "Picnic." I can only assume they put all four films (including the one I was watching) out on DVD in the same sales quarter...


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