Thursday, December 2, 2010


In the 30s and 40s no filmmaker captured the essence of Americana like Frank Capra. His films were the very epitome of the triumph of the human spirit especially when intertwined with great adversity. During his illustrious career he won three Oscars for his direction, and two of his films won the coveted Oscar for best picture. He was a bold representative of a time in Hollywood when films did not need to be dark and foreboding to be considered award quality, and he capitalized on that notion with style and grace. YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU is easily one of his most memorable and greatest achievements.

An average day in the Sycamore Household

Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU tells the story of the eccentric Sycamore family and their grandfather and ringleader, Mr. Vanderhof. More than 30 years prior Mr. Vanderhof was a successful business man who abruptly left his office one day in order to have some fun with life and never returned. His passion and free spirit became a staple in his household, and now all the Sycamores spend their day doing whatever they please. Penny, Vanderhof's daughter, writes novels because someone delivered a typewriter to the Sycamore house by mistake 8 years ago. Her husband, Paul, makes fireworks in the basement with family friend and resident Mr. DePinna. Their eldest daughter Essie dances around the house like a ballerina and makes fudge, and their youngest daughter, Alice, likes to slide down the banister into the great room on her way to work. Worlds collide for the Sycamore family when a wealthy Wall Street banker wishes to buy their property and the surrounding properties in order to build a factory for the manufacture of weapons for the looming war in Europe. Grandpa is the last holdout, and banker, A.P. Kirby will do whatever it takes to get him to sell. Little does Mr. Kirby know, but his son and newest vice president, Tony, is dating Alice Sycamore.

As a stage play YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU is an absolute delight to behold. I recently had the opportunity to see a wonderful professional production here in my home town, and it was an intensely gratifying experience. Without the constraints of live theater, (the entire play takes place in the great room of the Sycamore household) the film is able to expand locations in order to flesh out detail only hinted at on stage. Under these circumstances the film becomes an exciting and entertaining companion to an already entertaining play. For me this really helped increase my satisfaction with watching the film, but mind you, you do not need to see the play to enjoy it. Capra's skilled direction drives the story effortlessly from start to finish, never slowing down and never leaving the viewer wanting. It is easy to see why he was so highly regarded in his day. Lionel Barrymore is deliciously elegant as Grandpa Vanderhof. He delivers his lines with emotion and picture perfect comedic timing. (I must add an exchange between him and an I.R.S. agent about paying taxes as one of my favorite scenes of all time.) For those of you who are fans of another Capra work, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, Barrymore's performance adds an interesting and stark contrast to his portrayal of the malicious and ambitious Mr. Potter. Jimmy Stewart also shines as Tony, the bridge between the Kirbys and the Sycamores and the son of a wealthy man who has already learned that wealth isn't everything. Stewart has always exceeded at capturing the essence of the everyman, and it is easy to see why Capra chose to work with him on several occasions. He portrays Tony with warmth and class, and one can't help but see true love and devotion between him and Alice. Jean Arthur is also exceptional as Alice, a woman who loves her family and loves her man and hopes that the two will find a way to meet in the middle through her. All in all, expert direction, stellar performances, and emotionally uplifting storytelling make this film a treasure that should not be missed.

YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU is light-hearted but not a product of simpler times. Keep in mind that the U.S. was caught in the grip of The Great Depression and Europe was on the brink of war. With that in mind Hollywood was interested in audience friendly escapist fare, and YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU fits that need nicely. Is it silly and unrealistic at times? Yes, I can admit as much, but its central theme still resonates true to this very day. "Don't become so entrenched in the grind of daily life that you forget what's truly important."

That's my opinion, and I'm sticking to it.