I’m still surprised it took me this long to watch a Frank Capra/James Stewart film, especially since I adore “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” and “It’s A Wonderful Life” as much as I do. Surprisingly, this film, “You Can’t Take With You,” is the only Capra/Stewart production to win Best Picture, and it’s not hard to see why.
Part of this is due to competition, with “Mr. Smith” coming out in 1939, arguably the greatest year in cinema history with “Wizard Of Oz” and “Gone With The Wind” among others, and “It’s A Wonderful Life” having to compete with “The Best Years Of Our Lives” and the return of so many great actors and directors from WWII. But more so, “You Can’t Take It With You” has the best compilation of performances out of the three films, with every actor turning in a captivating and unique performance, and Lionel Barrymore leading the way.
The story is adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, about a young man born into a rich and prosperous family (Stewart) falling in love with his receptionist (Jean Arthur), who is the only seemingly normal one in her eccentric family, led by her grandfather (Lionel Barrymore). The two try to make their families accept the other, since they’re recently engaged to be married. But while her family is accepting of him, his stuck-up and snobby family does not approve of marrying someone so low on the totem-pole. Unbeknownst to all of them, his father (Thomas Mitchell) is planning to buy up a twelve-block part of land where hundreds of people live, so that he can sell the land and make a fortune, and the grandfather is only one left on the block who is unwilling to sell his property.
While the story is convoluted and a bit confusing to follow, it still holds many of the traits we’ve come to know and love in a Frank Capra film. Every character feels fully fleshed out, even the ones who only have one or two lines are full of life and want to speak their mind, and add to the overall sense of community, like the town is one massive character that lives and breathes just as much as you or I do.
There was one scene near the end that reminded me of the ending to “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and it brought a smile to my face as the selfless actions of the grandfather for many years have finally brought him to this moment, where the town can finally show just how much it cares about this one man.
There were also several moments that reminded me of an underrated Capra film, “Arsenic and Old Lace,” which was also an adaptation of a play. Both have similarities, in that both take place almost exclusively in one location, while still having a cast of dozens, mostly wild-and-crazy people who have been cooped up for far too long.
The heart-and-soul of this movie comes back to Lionel Barrymore’s performance, as an old man on crutches who gives up every room in his house to family members and others who want to pursue their dreams, like learning to make fireworks or building toys. He believes that one shouldn’t spend their life at a job they hate, but instead do something that brings them joy. This is a man full of youth and spirit, even if his body doesn’t reflect it. Practically the opposite of Barrymore’s Mr. Potter in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” we see someone who wants people to be free and see that money isn’t the most important thing in the world.
Overall, “You Can’t Take It With You,” is a great film with some quirky humor, some stand-out characters and some wonderfully beautiful moments scattered throughout. The film feels like a combination of “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “It’s A Wonderful Life,” by packing in these zany characters in one tight place but still having plenty of heart and soul. I would recommend watching this one with subtitles, since the most up-to-date version I watched had poor sound quality and couldn’t always understand what the characters were saying. Other than that, this one was a truly great Capra classic.
Final Grade: A-