YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU continued Frank Capra’s run of hits, taking the Oscar for Best Picture of 1938, giving Capra his third golden mantelpiece for Direction and earning nominations for Screenplay, Supporting Actress (Spring Byington), Cinematography, Film Editing and Sound. Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin adapted and expanded the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, which ran for two years on Broadway and copped the Pulitzer Prize. *
Easygoing ‘Tony Kirby’ (James Stewart) wants to marry sweet stenographer ‘Alice Sycamore’ (Jean Arthur), who works for his gruff banker father (Edward Arnold). The acquisitive dad has a munitions monopoly lined up, but in the way is a property belonging to Alice’s carefree ‘Grandpa Vanderhof’ (Lionel Barrymore), who’s made his home a zany refuge for Alice’s family and eccentric friends. Can the happy ‘little people’ stand up against the grasping power brokers creed of greed, and can the fragile romance weather the class contest?
Though this example of ‘Capracorn’ went over big at the time, it doesn’t hold up nearly as well as his other hits. The eccentricity-angle feels force-fed, little of the ‘cute’ comedy works. The serious underlay of the “Do something with your LIFE besides WORK” message comes off better. The cast is the strong suit rather than the material. After four years and 17 films, this was a big lift for 30-year-old Stewart, who shortly scored even bigger for Capra in Mr.Smith Goes To Washington (also with Arthur and Arnold). Byington’s Oscar nomination for her ditzy mother here came for one of eight films she appeared in that year. Among the houseful of free spirits are Ann Miller (just 15) and character great Dub Taylor, 31 in his debut: he was picked for his choice Southern-fried accent and because he could play a xylophone (like his character).
“You ought to hear Grandpa on that subject. You know, he says most people nowadays are run by fear; Fear of what they eat, fear of what they drink, fear of their jobs, their future, fear of their health. They’re scared to save money and scared to spend it. You know what his pet aversion is? The people who commercialize on fear: you know they scare you to death so they can sell you something you don’t need. So, he kinda taught all of not to be afraid of anything, but do what we want to do. Well, it’s kinda fun, anyway.”
Popular with critics (less so now), the $1,644,746 production was a smash with the public, who sensed the globe spinning into ism-chaos and appreciated the check-your-values pulse read by artists. #6 for the year, grossing $11,544,247 worldwide. I like Capra’s movies, but this one strained the chain.
126 minutes long, with a well-stocked supporting cast featuring Mischa Auer (another ‘Mad Russian’ sendup), Samuel S. Hinds, Donald Meek (‘Mr.Poppins’, inventor of the rabbit-in-a-cabbage toy), H.B. Warner (“Speech!”), Halliwell Hobbes, Mary Forbes, Lillian Yarbo, Eddie Anderson, Clarence Wilson, Charles Lane (schmuck from the IRS) , Ann Doran, Harry Davenport (kindly judge right out of fantasyland), James Burke, Stanley Andrews, Ward Bond, Ian Wolfe and James Flavin.
* Running 838 performances originally, the play has been revived many times. When Capra informed tight-fisted Colombia boss Harry Cohn that the rights to Broadway producer Sam Harris’ hit were $200,000, Cohn replied “Tell that gonif Harris I wouldn’t shell out two hundred G’s for The Second Coming!” $200,000 in 1938 equals $3,490,000 in 2019. Cohn relented to what at the time was a record asking price.
“Maybe it’d stop you trying to be so desperate about making more money than you can ever use? You can’t take it with you, Mr. Kirby. So what good is it? As near as I can see, the only thing you can take with you is the love of your friends.”
As for the movie’s Oscar nab—that really should have gone to either of nominees Grand Illusion or The Adventures Of Robin Hood. Along with those two, other better and more enjoyable films from ’38 include Angels With Dirty Faces, In Old Chicago, Jezebel, Three Comrades, Holiday and Alexander’s Ragtime Band.