“You may be a high mogul to yourself, Mr. Kirby, but to me you’re a failure — failure as a man, failure as a human being, even a failure as a father. When your time comes, I doubt if a single tear will be shed over you. The world will probably cry ‘good riddance’. That’s a nice prospect, Mr. Kirby.”
While in New York for the opening of Lost Horizon in March 1937, director Frank Capra was entranced by a performance of the hit George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart play “You Can’t Take It with You.” He urged Harry Cohn, head of Columbia, to buy the film rights for him. Cohn refused, exacerbating a dispute between him and Capra that had recently arisen over the final editing of Lost Horizon and also Columbia’s apparent attempt to advertise a Jean Arthur film, If Only You Could Cook, in Britain as a Frank Capra production when Capra had had nothing to do with it. The dispute dragged on into the courts and it wasn’t until late November 1937 that it was resolved. Part of the resolution was an agreement by Columbia to buy the rights to “You Can’t Take It with You” and its assignment to Capra as his next film.
Working once again with his writing associate Robert Riskin, Capra reshaped the play somewhat to reflect the themes of his previous successes — rejection of wealth, triumph of the common man, and the like. Shooting began in late April 1938 and was completed within two months at a cost of just over one and half million dollars. The completed film opened in New York in the first week of September and proved to be a winner at the box office. It was later nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, both of which it won. Capra’s award as Best Director was his third.
Columbia has finally issued the film on DVD, but the wait has hardly been worthwhile.
Financier Anthony P. Kirby is all set to close a huge deal that involves buying all the land around a competitor’s factory, thus forcing him out of business and opening the way for a Kirby-led munitions monopoly. While all his underlings cluster like locusts around Kirby doing his bidding, his son Tony has little interest in the business despite his nominal title of vice-president. He prefers to pass his time with his secretary, Alice Sycamore, in an effort to get her to marry him.
Alice, along with the rest of her rather eccentric family, lives in a house headed up by her “grandpa” — Martin Vanderhof. The house turns out to be located right in the middle of the block of land that Anthony P. Kirby wants to buy up, but grandpa refuses to sell to Kirby’s agent. No amount of money will sway him, for he has long since given up the pursuit of wealth in favour of a life devoted to only those things that he feels like doing.
Tony’s parents are dead set against his marrying Alice, but unaware that it is her grandpa that is holding up the big deal, agree to visit Alice’s family at Tony’s request. The resulting visit leads to complete chaos with all involved ending up in jail.
After being released from jail, Alice is so angry with Tony over the outcome of his parents’ visit that she runs away. Distraught at losing her, grandpa decides to sell his home after all, so that the whole family can move to where Alice has gone.
With the road now clear to complete his big deal, Anthony P. Kirby moves to finalize the issue, but his interaction with the Vanderhofs has made him start to question himself and when the competitor that he had squeezed out commits suicide, it is no longer obvious how he’ll proceed.
I remember the first time I had the opportunity to see this film. It was at a retrospective of classic films at university some (cough, cough) years ago and I had recently had the pleasure of seeing the likes of Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, so my hopes were high for another unseen Capra film. I was not disappointed then, nor have I been by any of numerous viewings since at revival houses and on VHS and laserdisc. Yes, the film’s in rough shape, print-wise, but it’s never been bad enough to spoil the film’s many pleasures. Of course, it helps if you like Capra’s unique blend of comedy and social commentary. But even if that is not to your taste, the sheer artistry of the incredible casts that Capra assembled for his films should win you over. If it doesn’t, then classic comedy probably isn’t for you and you’d likely be better off devoting your time to the modern comedy classics like, uh, well, er…oh, that’s right, there aren’t any, are there?
This film is full of great scenes and sequences: Tony (James Stewart) and Alice (Jean Arthur) at a restaurant where Tony comes up with an amusing way to explain a scream that Alice accidentally gives off, Penny Sycamore (Grandpa Vanderhof’s daughter played by Spring Byington) at work on her latest writing project and using a kitten as a paperweight for her manuscript, Vanderhof house guest Kolenkhov (Mischa Auer) showing Mr. Kirby (Edward Arnold) how to wrestle, Mrs. Kirby (Mary Forbes) in jail being questioned by a few other inmates as to her “street” technique, mild-mannered Mr. Poppins (Donald Meek, who else) demonstrating his various creations, Alice’s sister Essie (Ann Miller) demonstrating some of the least-talented dancing ever, Donald (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) racing off to get a “gourmet” dinner of wieners for the visiting Kirbys, the legion of sychophants (Edwin Maxwell — no relation so far as I know — is the oiliest of the lot) surrounding Mr. Kirby at the bank, Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) telling off Mr. Kirby at the jail, and the whole courthouse sequence presided over by an indulgent judge (Harry Davenport). I think you get the idea from this how rich the cast is. Some of the names may not be familiar to younger viewers, but I guarantee you that they represent the cream of the incredibly rich pool of supporting talent that existed in the Hollywood golden age.
You Can’t Take It with You was far from James Stewart’s first film. He’d already made over a dozen films, mainly at MGM, since 1935. But this 1938 film, along with the same year’s Vivacious Lady (RKO, with Ginger Rogers) and Shopworn Angel (MGM, with Margaret Sullavan), really solidified the amiable, slow-talking screen persona that characterized his films for over the next decade. It was also his first teaming with Jean Arthur who was under contract to Columbia and with whom he would re-team for the even more formidable Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Edward Arnold would be back for that too. It is interesting to see Lionel Barrymore in the gentle, philosophical role of Grandpa Vanderhof. The next time we see him together with James Stewart and directed by Capra is in 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life wherein he plays the much darker, unloved character of Mr. Potter.
As to the film’s appearance on DVD, this is the worst DVD treatment that’s been accorded a Best Picture Oscar winner by any major studio. Significant portions of Columbia’s DVD release are literally little better than the existing VHS release. The disc is derived from a high-definition transfer done four years ago, but at that time the considerable digital clean-up that was necessary was not carried out. Columbia decided to proceed with a DVD release now, based on this source material in response to the perceived demand for the title, rather than delay longer for a full-blown restoration. Such a restoration is, however, in the works and will eventually yield an improved version of the film on DVD, though that’s probably several years off. In the meantime, the full frame (in accord with the original aspect ratio) image transfer we have available is full of scratches, speckles, and missing frames. The image has some good sections, but is more often than not soft with mediocre contrast. A real disappointment!
The mono sound fares little better. Aside from some lines of dialogue that aren’t there at all due to missing frames, the volume is inconsistent and has to be amplified at times to hear what’s going on. The disc is amply subtitled in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Japanese.
The supplements consist solely of trailers for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Picnic, and Sense and Sensibility (why that one?). In other words, Columbia saw fit to provide absolutely nothing that has anything to do with the film itself. Compared to the supplementary efforts on their other Capra films, this release is a travesty.
I know some people don’t think much of this film with respect to other Capra titles and particularly don’t feel it merited its Best Picture status, but I’m not one of them. It’s always been a favourite (after all, what’s not to like with Stewart, Arthur, Arnold, Barrymore all in fine form aided by Capra’s usual amazing cast of supporting character actors) and I was delighted when I heard it was finally coming to DVD. You can imagine then my disappointment at how poorly it’s been treated. I never thought I’d say this about this film, but coming from a major studio like Columbia, this DVD is not recommended.