Blogging Best Picture: 1938, "You Can't Take It With You"

Frank Capra made plenty of great movies over the course of his career, It Happened One Night and It’s A Wonderful Life being the best of them.  But he developed a reputation for making sentimental pablum (“Capra Corn”), and his less successful films—like this one—are sweet enough to make your teeth hurt.  It’s a populist fable in which Jimmy Stewart, playing the son of a pompous capitalist, falls in love with Jean Arthur, who comes from a family of boisterous, free-spirited, lower-middle-class kooks.  The title of You Can’t Take It With You gives away the argument of the whole film: love is more important than money; meaningful work should trump financial gain; the genteel poor are happier than the idle rich; and so on.  In other words, there’s little here that couldn’t be conveyed more efficiently by an embroidered pillow.  Ordinarily Stewart might be counted on to carry a film like this, but his character is oddly passive and plays a rather minor role in the plot, the real conflict of which plays out between the two fathers, played by Edward Arnold and Lionel Barrymore.  (Barrymore’s performance here as the happy-go-lucky Grandpa Vanderhof does make a striking foil to his better-known turn as the crotchety Mr. Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life.)  

The thing that’s weird about this movie has to do with its being a pretty obvious adaptation of a stage play.  Written by Kaufman and Hart, You Can’t Take It With You had run for years on Broadway and won a Pulitzer Prize by the time the film version was released by Columbia.  As such, Capra’s direction feels somewhat perfunctory, even awkward at times, and it seems as if he lacks personal investment in the material.  The same could arguably be said of his 1944 film version of the hit comedy Arsenic and Old Lace.  Side note: I have now seen every film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture between the years 1930 and 1939.    

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