You Can’t Take it With You (1938)
Starring: Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold
Directed by: Frank Capra
Released by: Columbia Pictures
Synopsis: Alice (Jean Arthur), the only relatively normal member of the eccentric Sycamore family, falls in love with Tony Kirby (James Stewart). His wealthy banker father, Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold), and his snobbish mother (Mary Forbes), strongly disapprove of the match. When the Kirbys are invited to dinner to become better acquainted with their future in-laws, things do not turn out the way Alice had hoped.
Review: I would say that out of all the Frank Capra films, You Can’t Take it With You may be the most underrated film of them all. While doing research for this blog project I had seen people mention movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “Arsenic and Old Lace”, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “It Happened One Night” as being the best of the director’s career. It wasn’t until I further investigated these movies that I stumbled upon You Can’t Take it With You. I decided to watch it and I was very surprised at how fun the movie is despite its somewhat obscure presence in Capra’s film work.
As the synopsis describes, this is a “two families from different worlds” story in which one family learns about the virtues of the other through many circumstances. This isn’t the most original idea for a story ever created, but as I have stated countless times in my reviews it is not the story you are telling that is important, it’s how you tell it that does, and Frank Capra is a master at telling stories featuring very likable characters, and You Can’t Take it With You has them by the dozen!
The Sycamore family is very charming in their eccentric but ultimately innocent affairs. They clearly enjoy their life and are trying their hardest to get the most out of it, whether by writing a theater play or trying to become a Russian ballet dancer. From the minute these characters appear on-screen you quickly grow to love them as they are meant to embody the ideal family; one that may not have the most material possessions, but sure love to look at life through a different point of view. While Frank Capra had tackled colorful characters before, You Can’t Take it With You may be the best when it comes to this fact. Most of Capra’s films incorporate dramatic characters that even out the silliness of some of the main characters (most notably seen in “It’s a Wonderful Life”). But this film decides to have fun with it while trying to teach us an important lesson (something I will touch upon later on).
Then you have the Kirbys, the wealthy family that meet the Sycamores through their children (played by Jean Arthur and James Stewart). Obviously, this is the family that focuses more on the material gain rather than the overall life experience. As you may recall in some of my reviews of Frank Capra films, one common problem the director has is that his antagonists tend to be very cartoony and over the top, being very greedy, selfish and at times very disturbing in their train of thought. You Can’t Take it With You mostly avoids this obstacle with the Kirbys. Even though they still portray some stereotypical mannerisms that come with the rich family archetype, they tend to be much grounded; some of their concerns are actually somewhat founded. Ultimately, they do learn to become better people thanks to the antics of the Sycamores, but the key word here is “learn”. Basically, rather than have them go through an entire transformation that changes their lives through extraordinary circumstances they become better people by seeing how the other side of the fence lives, leading to a sweet conclusion. It feels more satisfying this way than in something like “It’s a Wonderful Life”.
This leads to the moral of the story. Frank Capra is famous for directing movies in which the virtues of the everyday man is put to the test in some rather incredible events, and are highly celebrated when they triumph over their enemies. This lead to the belief that his films tend to be overly preachy and thus harder to swallow thanks to an apparent “pretention” that wants to educate film goers rather than entertain. You Can’t Take it With You is no exception to the rule, but actually does it very differently from other films. It definitely celebrates the life of the average man as being one that is far more fulfilling that one of a man who has gained his heart’s material desires. But never did I think it was being forced on me. That’s because the movie tells the story rather than stopping it just to deliver a message. This is done through character dialogue and the events we see on-screen. It is also fair in that it says that neither lifestyle is perfect. The Kirbys may be more financially stable and more prone to responsibility, but they sure take themselves very seriously. The Sycamores, however, may be happier than some other families because of how they decided to pursue their dreams, but the movie shows us that they too have issues when it comes to responsibilities and accepting when you are bad at something. In the end, both families learn that rather than being divided by their differences they should unite to make a family that is stronger together than apart, and I think that’s a great lesson for us to learn.
The film casts some really big name actors for this seemingly simple film, many who have already collaborated with Frank Capra. James Stewart as always gives us a sweet and earnest performance as the heir of the Kirby Empire. Jean Arthur gives us a warm performance the only member of the Sycamore family that has her feet grounded in reality, even if she still has a couple of quirks of her own. Lionel Barrymore is also another member of the Sycamore family that is slightly more grounded than everyone else. This actor is known for playing far more serious roles in other movies, so it was surprising to see him play such a wonderful man. As a fun fact, in this movie he is seen with a sprained leg. This isn’t because the story demanded it, it’s because the actor suffered an injury in another movie, and thus his character had to be written as if he was recently injured in one of his escapades.
In terms of flaws, the film has very little of them, but there are still some. Despite trying it’s hardest to be more of a movie and less of a lesson it still can get pretty preachy, especially by the end of the story. This wasn’t a bother to me, but those that haven’t accept this quirk of Capra’s they might find it harder to accept than anyone else. Another problem is that some of the characters are rather stereotypical and thus might offend some audiences (note that compared to other films of the era the stereotypes are a tad gentler, but are stereotypes nonetheless).
Regardless, You Can’t Take it With You is a really fun Capra film that sadly hasn’t gotten enough credit. It has some very lovable and sweet characters, avoids most of the traps Capra falls for in other movies and the story is very satisfying. If you loved any of Capra’s films and have yet to see this film I highly recommend it.
Rating: 4 filmstrips out of 5