Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 17, 2003)
For DVD-loving Oscar fans, the Thirties remains the most neglected decade. Technically, I suppose the Twenties seem more problematic, as neither of the two Best Picture victors from that era appear on DVD. (Actually, one could argue that point, as 1927ís Sunrise sort of earned Best Picture Ė itís all very confusing.) However, of the full decades in which the Academy Awards existed, the Thirties appears to be the weakest. Through the end of 2002, of the 10 possible DVDs, only three of them exised: 1930ís All Quiet On the Western Front, 1934ís It Happened One Night, and 1939ís Gone With the Wind.
With the advent of 2003, we now find one additional Best Picture flick from the Thirties: 1938ís Frank Capra film You Canít Take It With You. At its start, the movie introduces us to the firm of Anthony Kirby and Company. Anthony Kirby (Edward Arnold) wants to monopolize the munitions business, and he desires to put competitor Ramsey (H.B. Warner) out of business. To do so, he needs to purchase all of the buildings within the 12 blocks that surround Ramsey, but one of them refuses to sell.
Owned by Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore), the home houses his clan of free spirits who do what they want. One dances, another writes, one other invents; essentially they feel free to pursue their dreams. He refuses to sell his house despite the pestering of Kirbyís minions.
What complicates this story? The involvement of Kirbyís son Tony (James Stewart) and Vanderhofís granddaughter Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur). Not only does Alice serve as Tonyís secretary, but also the two love each other and plan to marry. Given their disparate backgrounds, this seems like a tough match, but they try to get their families together.
A further impediment occurs when the IRS comes a-calling to the Vanderhof residence. It seems that Martin never bothered to pay income tax, as he didnít trust the government to spend it appropriately. He owes 22 years back taxes, which puts him in such a financial bind that he might need to sell the house.
You Canít Take It With You mostly seems like sentimental piffle, but it appears well done for that genre. Directed by Frank Capra, the film shows all the normal hallmarks of his flicks, and foes of his style certainly wonít find anything to change their opinions here.
Actually, Take feels something like a dry run for a better-known Capra film, 1946ís Itís a Wonderful Life. Much about the two movies appears dissimilar, but Take bears quite a few moments that resemble those of Wonderful. Kirby certainly comes across as a less nasty version of Wonderfulís Mr. Potter, and a segment in which neighbors take up a collection for the Vanderhofs strongly reminds me of Wonderfulís ending. (It seems intriguing that Lionel Barrymore played both Vanderhof and Potter; itís tough to imagine two less similar characters.)
Where Take and Wonderful differ stems from their overall tones. Wonderful is more of a moral lesson as a whole, while most of Take functions as a wacky comedy. Sure, the movie inserts social commentary with some regularity; the flick definitely feels like a piece of its Depression era, as we see the nobility of the common man opposed to the aloofness of the elite.
However, Wonderful focuses more on the life lessons of one character, while Take pushes comic situations over story for the most part. Granted, weíre frequently led to see the loosy-goosy Vanderhof clan as the ideal and the stuffy Kirbys as a drag, but much of the time, this feels mostly like an excuse for comedic shenanigans.
Take benefits from some good performances. Some of the actors got on my nerves Ė Dub Taylor and Ann Miller seem moderately annoying at times Ė but they appear less grating than Iíd expect. In its free-spirit tone, Take reminds me of the hippie-era travesty Harold and Maude. However, the characters of Take never appear nearly as smug and obnoxious as those in Maude. I normally hate this kind of ďdo what you wantĒ tale, but the extended Vanderhof clan managed to come across as generally likable.
Jean Arthur does particularly well with Alice. We have to believe the character as someone from the Vanderhof family who also could fall in love with a Kirby, and she spans the two disciplines well. Granted, it helps that we see that Tony isnít uptight like his parents, but I still think that Arthur encountered a big challenge with Alice. She makes the role lovely and charming.
Ultimately, You Canít Take It With You feels like an enjoyable and well-executed but somewhat insubstantial movie. Admittedly, itís nice to see that the Academy honored comedies more willingly back in the Thirties; it seems doubtful that a flick such as this could win Best Picture in modern times. Not much about Take made a major impact on me, but it appears to be a fairly entertaining piece.