You Can't Take It With You
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There may have been a surfeit of filmmaking talent in Hollywood in the 1930s, but you could argue that the decade belonged to Frank Capra. By the time Capra won Oscars for directing It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), his last name signified a certain brand of genial, uplifting picture to the vast majority of American filmgoers. Capra would win yet another Best Director statuette for You Can't Take It With You in 1938, although, to hear him tell it, he owed it all to can't-miss material and great actors.
While in New York for the opening of yet another of his critically lauded films, Lost Horizon (1937), Capra caught a performance of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, You Can't Take It With You. Capra was so thrilled with Kaufman and Hart's family full of eccentrics, he immediately knew that he wanted to film the play. Unfortunately, producer Sam Harris' asking price was $200,000. This was an unheard of sum of money at the time, even for a proven, award-winning property. Harry Cohn blew a gasket over the demand, memorably shouting, "You tell that gonif Harris I wouldn't shell out 200 G's for the second coming!"
But shell out he did, to banner headlines (and, it should be noted, free advertising) in the trade papers. Capra and writer Robert Riskin immediately went to work on the play, giving it a warmer reading. They shifted the narrative's emphasis to business tycoon Anthony Kirby's (Edward Arnold) attempt to buy up a residential area where he wants to build a new factory. However, one man, Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore), won't sell his house. Vanderhof and his family live by the credo that you should do literally whatever you want to do in life, whether it's writing terrible books, performing ballet badly while your husband plays the xylophone, or (in Martin's case) breaking your leg while sliding down a banister. Money means nothing to them.
By coincidence, Vanderhof's relatively "normal" granddaughter, Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur), is the secretary to Kirby's son, Anthony Kirby, Jr. (Jimmy Stewart.) Alice and Anthony fall in love and plan to marry, which engenders a memorable dinner gathering between the two families.
The Kirbys accidentally show up a day early, thus getting a full dose of the Vanderhofs' raging eccentricities. Kaufman and Hart's screwball structure allows for a galloping cast of characters - including Ann Miller, in a memorable turn as Vanderhof's ballet-obsessed daughter - to wreak so much havoc, it's impossible to describe it all in this space. Suffice it to say that dinner is topped off by a batch of homemade fireworks blowing up in the basement, which, along with the unknowing distribution of some Communist pamphlets, results in the arrests of both families.
This turn of events puts Alice and Anthony's nuptials in jeopardy, albeit just long enough for a sunny, Capra-esque ending to save the day. He even drags out a harmonica to drive his point home. As big a hit as the movie was, some fans of the play thought, not without reason, that Capra had de-fanged it.
In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra pauses from describing You Can't Take It With You to wax philosophical on directing. "This is the artistry of the film director," he wrote, "to convince actors that they are real flesh and blood human beings living a story...This self-convincement of actors applies with equal force to those playing the smallest of parts. Does a star, paying his hotel bill, pay it to a bit actress or to a real cashier?" He goes on to describe how giving even the smallest characters a background story, something the actor can carry with them throughout a scene, ensured the reality that sold his pictures.
Capra adored actors. He was pleased, as he should have been, to meet up with Jimmy Stewart, who pretty much made his name with You Can't Take It With You, then enjoyed legendary success in Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946), among many, many others. But, proving once again his concern for even the smallest parts, Capra liked to tell a story about the casting of then-unknown Dub Taylor as Miller's xylophone-playing husband, Ed.
"I was interviewing xylophone players," he wrote, "when in walked a merry oaf wearing a perpetual infectious grin as big as a sunburst. Sweat drops gleamed on his forehead. "I'm Dub Taylor, and I kin play the xylophone." His very presence evoked laughter. "Have you ever played in a picture, Mr. Taylor?" I asked. "No suh, I ain't. But I played in the Rose Bowl on the Alabama football team." His Southern accent dripped hominy grits. I asked him to play the xylophone I had in the office."
Taylor went on to play a hysterical, scatterbrained rendition of "Dinah" that won him the part, as well as a place in Capra's heart. When Capra later heard that Taylor was in financial trouble and that he and his wife were expecting a baby, he put him on salary for a few months before shooting started to take unnecessary "xylophone lessons," just so he could make a few more dollars. Who says nice guys finish last? This one ended up with a pile of Oscars.
Produced and directed by: Frank Capra
Screenplay: Robert Riskin (based on the play by Moss Hart)
Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Editing: Gene Havlick
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Art Design: Stephen Goosson Costume Design: Bernard Newman and Irene Principal Cast: Jean Arthur (Alice Sycamore), Lionel Barrymore (Martin Vanderhof), James Stewart (Tony Kirby), Ann Miller (Essie Carmichael), Mischa Auer (Kolenkhov), Spring Byington (Penny Sycamore), Samuel S. Hinds (Paul Sycamore), Donald Meek (Poppins), Dub Taylor (Ed Carmichael).
BW-126m. Closed Captioning.
by Paul Tatara