Thursday, December 12, 2013

You Can't Take It With You

Last night I watched - for the first time, I think - the 1938 movie, You Can't Take It With You. I've had a DVD of it for some time, but apparently have never got round to viewing it! Though it's based on the stage play by George Kaufman and Moss Hart, it substantially changes a number of things, drops some characters, adds others, and in general makes a much more successful fist of things than if it had stuck to the layout of the original play.

A good deal of the original script survives, especially in terms of the main characters, but the snobbish and extremely wealthy Kirbys are given a much greater amount of screen time than they get on stage, and this adds strongly to the contrast between them and the eccentric Vanderhofs. In this version, Mr Kirby, a ruthless businessman, is about to take over entire blocks of the city in order to build a massive munitions factory.  In the process, a whole community will be torn apart. The only thing standing in his way is Mr Vanderhof, who refuses to sell his house - it's right in the middle of the proposed development. Apart from the romance between Kirby's son (James Stewart at his gawky best) and Vanderhof's granddaughter (Jean Arthur, not as dizzy as in some of her comedies) the film focuses on the contrast between Kirby and Vanderhof's philosophies of life: the latter is content to live with what he has, and to enjoy life; the former can only see life in terms of making money, and lots of it, yet he enjoys it not at all, and is told at one point he has stomach ulcers - though he claims it's merely indigestion.

The eccentric Vanderhof family look a little unlikely these days, and the idea of them just surviving on next to nothing, and welcoming others into their home to do the same, was probably somewhat improbable even when the film was made. However the point of their eccentricity is that they're not driven by ambition, or money, or any of the other things that give people emotional disease. Furthermore, in the film at least, they express a certain kind of Christian ease with the world, and it's notable that people flock around them (Vanderhof himself in particular) because there is a kind of charisma about them. Vanderhof even walks (or rather limps - he's sprained his foot) into a busy office and persuades an unhappy worker to give up his job and do what he really enjoys doing - making crazy toys.

Mr and Mrs Kirby live the life of wealth - he is full of greed and ambition and ruthlessness; his wife is a snob who's only hobby is spiritualism. This 'hobby' is trounced soundly by one of the Vanderhofs at a later stage of the movie as being nonsense.

It would be interesting to know how much input director Frank Capra had into the script. Though it's credited to Robert Riskin (who collaborated on several Capra movies), it seems as if Capra may have had a great deal to do with the structuring and characterization.  The film is full of typical Capra touches and scenes, the sorts of things that couldn't have been added at the last minute.  These include the hectic night court debacle with four attorneys turning up to defend the Kirbys (who've been arrested along with all the Vanderhofs), a host of reporters getting wind of the story, a crowd of the Vanderhofs' friends and neighbours - who at one point pass the hat around raucously to fund the Vanderhofs' fine - and the arguments and interactions between all the main characters. It's the kind of thing Capra revelled in, and did very well.  He seemed very capable of directing crowd scenes in which every person visible has a part to play, rather than just being in the background, and of bringing chaos to the screen without losing his audience.

The film is probably more Christian in tone than the play. Twice Vanderhof prays a grace before a meal, and on both occasions (addressing God as, 'Well, Sir') his prayer is simple and humble, showing a willingness to go along with the Lord's plans rather than his own. The parable of the wise man who built on a rock, and his opposite, the foolish man who built on sand, is brought to mind frequently, even though it's never overtly stated. There's a sense that everything happens according to a plan rather than randomly in spite of the chaos of the household, and there's a wonderful ease amongst the characters who live in the house - even though some of the things they do are basically pointless. Vanderhof's daughter (Spring Byington) spends her time typing plays - because a typewriter turned up one day.  Her own daughter, played by Ann Miller, spends her time dancing - yet she's not very good at it, and never will be. Her husband enjoys printing things, some of which are misinterpreted as revolutionary - he also plays the marimba, accompanying his wife at the drop of a hat. Byington's husband, and the iceman who arrived one day to deliver ice, and never went away again, spend their time in the basement making fireworks for the sheer pleasure of it. Two black servants seem as relaxed around the place as anyone. Though they're still servants, they have as much honour as anyone else.

Vanderhof is played by Lionel Barrymore, that bastion of many movies of the period, and member of a well-known theatrical family.  He was only sixty at the time - Samuel S Hinds, who plays his son-in-law, was two or three years older than him. Edward Arnold (who once supposedly said, in regard to not losing weight, "The bigger I got, the better character roles I received") is Mr Kirby, and he brings a great subtlety to the role, which may well have been expanded to fit his talents.  Incidentally, the theatrical poster pictured above must rank as one of the worst in terms of disfiguring the actors' faces. Most of them are unrecognizable.


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