- Production Company: Columbia Pictures
- Year Released: 1938
- Directed By: Frank Capra
- Starring: Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart
- Expect To Pay: $4-17
1938 saw the return of Columbia Pictures and director Frank Capra to the winning circle with this comedic smash based on the 1936 play of the same name by George Kaufman and Moss Hart. Before continuing, I should mention that when I say comedy, I mean that it is a comedy in the old sense of the word rather than the way we use the word now. There are plenty of laughs to be had in this movie sure, but at its core, it’s about how a man relearns humility and the ability to enjoy the little things in life. And yes, it has an extremely happy ending.
The year is 1938 and the world is poised to destroy itself. Germany has begun its aggressive stance on foreign policy and everyone senses that a second World War is on the horizon. For some however, this means good business. One such person is Arthur J. Kirby, wealthy banker and one of the most influential men in the world of business. He’s on the cusp of one of the biggest mergers in American history. It’s a merger that would essentially allow him to have a monopoly on all ammunition, quite a lucrative thing to have on the eve of the biggest war in history.
The only thing standing in his way is a 12-block radius of neighborhood where he intends to build his factory. He has gotten everyone in the neighborhood to sign their houses away except one: Martin Vanderhoff, known to all as Grandpa (Lionel Barrymore ). He and his family are eccentrics who live as they please and do whatever pleases them, social qualms be damned. They are essentially the exact opposite of the kind of people Arthur J. Kirby and his wife are used to schmoozing with. Their son however (James Stewart) is in love with one of Vanderhoff’s grandchildren (Jean Arthur). When Kirby’s son takes them to meet the Vanderhoffs and their wonderfully whacky ways, their entire lives are changed for the better.
The plot itself has quite an excellent message: don’t worry, be happy. You can’t take any of the things you gather here on earth with you, so what is the point? Far better to just enjoy life. The case for this philosophy is best made by Martin Vanderhoff himself in many inspired speeches. His speech about how everyone is getting an “-ism” these days is just as relevant now as it was in 1938, and the film continues to lace together much decent political commentary into the narrative. In the hands of a weaker script or performed by lesser actors, the message would have suffered greatly, but this is avoided in the film thanks to some snappy dialogue delivered by the hands of pros.
In particular, Lionel Barrymore as Vanderhoff himself truly shines. He comes across as a kindly grandfather, always ready with a good quip or something interesting to say. He also has a backbone, as he is not afraid to stand up to people who he feel has done wrong. James Stewart as Kirby’s son is also quite excellent.
This was an early hit for him, and it helped him become established as an actor. He displays an earnestness and friendliness that to me embodies what most people think of when they think Americana. The rest of the supporting cast also turn in some great performances. Of all of the different films that I have reviewed thus far, You Can’t Take It With You might just have one of the mot well-rounded ensemble casts of them all.
From a musical standpoint, there’s really not a whole lot to speak of, though the film does include a number of delightful harmonica songs that tie directly into the plot and the arc of Arthur Kirby’s rejuvenation into a decent human being.
Speaking of that, his character development is quite interesting. He doesn’t seem to be particularly religious and his wife is a known dabbler in occultism. By contrast, the Vanderhoffs are quite obviously religious, as they say grace before meals and Grandpa Vanderhoff speaks to God as if he knows him on a first name basis. By the time that the film is over, they’re all together, saying grace before meals. A possibility that I could think of is that in an effort to get the American populace way from the horrors of war, Capra and the screenwriters were trying to remind Americans about what the most important things in life, and that could include the religious beliefs of the majority of Americans. I could be wrong. However, it is still food for thought.
Overall though, this is another home run for Capra and Columbia Pictures. The one flaw that I have read amongst some film critics is that some think that it is overly-sentimental and overly sweet in the grimdark world of today. Frankly, our world is nothing compared to the darkness of the 30s, so I take umbrage with such statements. If anything, the sweetness reminds me that not everyone in the world is out to get you. I am very aware that the world Capra displays is a populist fantasy and nothing more than a dream. But I don’t want to wake up.
Next film is a big one: Gone with the Wind. Oh man. I hope I can do it justice. See you all next time.