A Century of Film is an ongoing series where Devin Wilger watches one movie from each year between 1917 and today. For the year of 1938, we have You Can’t Take it With You.
If you look at the poster of You Can’t Take it With You, you would be forgiven if you thought it was all about James Stewart and Jean Arthur’s Tony and Alice. They’re the gleaming, smiling faces at the top, and while there’s a whole crew of other characters, they’re the ones the studio thinks are worth highlighting. While their romance is the axis on which the film bends, they’re not the center of the film. They are, instead, a tool, one used to bring together two old men, Lionel Barrymore’s Grandpa and Edward Arnold’s A.P. Kirby.
Grandpa - on crutches because Barrymore could no longer walk - is an elderly eccentric who presides over a household of eccentrics, with hobbies like fireworks, printmaking and dance. Kirby, meanwhile, is an angry war profiteer who really would quite like the house Grandpa and his family live in, so he can create a massive munitions factory, a sure path to profit since we’re in 1938 and the war is coming. Alice is the granddaughter of Grandpa, and she’s in love with Tony, who is the son of Kirby. Anyone who has watched a wacky comedy knows that there is bound to be fireworks when these two families inevitably meet, though they might be surprised by how literal these fireworks are.
It’s a pretty standard template, a bit of snobs vs. slobs comedy that has always been an easy route to success. If you’re looking for some great romance, you’re going to be disappointed. Jimmy Stewart is charming enough, though he’s definitely playing to type here, but his character is kind of obliviously stumbling around, sometimes literally such as in a restaurant scene where he walks backwards to try to distract from a sign pinned to Alice’s back. Alice, meanwhile, doesn’t really make much sense as a character. She’s a stenographer, making one wonder how she fits into her silly family - given how many modern films will make their female lead do something fanciful for a living, it’s jarring that a film about people doing fanciful things gives her a very normal job just to be in the romantic hero’s orbit. Their relationship makes sense, but they don’t seem to be a part of their warring families, and the families are the real center of the film.
The families are sometimes confusing in themselves. Grandpa seems to be running a weird commune of sorts, encouraging people to do whatever their passion is and seemingly collecting more people as he goes - in his first scene he convinces a low level employee at a real estate office to quit and make toys for him - and has a weird debate about how he doesn’t want to pay income tax against an ineffectual IRS agent that might be trying to make a political point but mostly comes across as a strange aside. This is also something that seems like it’s going to connect to the real estate subplot until it disappears into the ether. It’s not clear if he’s representing some sort of idealized America or he’s just a lucky, rich weirdo. Kirby, meanwhile, is made up to be some sort of business genius who can buy anything but love, which is an old trope but one that can work in the right hands. He also happens to be married to a stock character, as his social status obsessed wife (Mary Forbes) has no real personality outside of a blanket disapproval of everything that isn’t a shorthand for wealth.
Yet Kirby is better than his otherwise predictable parts, and credit to that mostly goes to Edward Arnold. His performance humanizes him from the first frame, and while it would have been easy to go broad with the character Arnold sells the person under the ruthless businessman. The arc of the character only makes sense because Arnold is so good at giving the character a personality beyond the page, it’s a difficult role mostly because there’s not much there otherwise. Arnold’s performance is sometimes the only thing that makes the character’s actions make sense, because his performance is what keeps the humanity present in the character.
On occasion it feels like a shame that this came before television was ubiquitous, the wide cast of characters could make for fertile ground to grow a sitcom on. As is, there’s just not enough time to really grow them as more than a wacky crew that lives in the background, often causing trouble but rarely given much of a story of their own. The only one that I found especially memorable was Kolenkhov (Mischa Auer), a Russian dance instructor who loves wrestling and showing up just in time for dinner, but hates everything else. But that’s not to say that the other characters couldn’t find space to grow over a 26 episode season - there’s a nugget of potential in all of them, which mostly just couldn’t be fit into the running time - and it also has a crow trained to create explosives, which is an inspired touch even if it’s only really used in one scene.
Director Frank Capra’s unrelenting optimism about the American people has caused him to drift in and out of favour over the years - his films have been derisively called “CapraCorn” as a result - and here his message is the same “money can’t make you truly happy” message that someone decides to make every few years. It’s actually somewhat political in this film - Kirby building a munitions factory is a pointed choice, especially with the clouds of war looming overhead - but it’s not a new message, nor is the sub-message about doing what you’re passionate about. The messages are nothing new, but in Arnold, Capra did find an actor capable of delivering a performance about the malaise that comes from the pursuit of profit above all else, even if the film features plenty of speeches in order to make sure that audiences recognize that this is what our themes are for the evening.
This took home the Best Picture Oscar for its year, and the tropes it uses have been used ever since. Yet, somehow, Edward Arnold didn’t even get a nomination, which is a shame, because he’s the element that makes the movie work, and his performance shines through the tired tropes and cliches that make up most of the film.
Next time, because it’s 1939 and because it’s among the most famous films I haven’t completely watched, we will be Gone with the Wind.