You Can’t Take It with You (1938)

You know how directors film Tom Cruise and Pacino and other short guys so that they seem of normal height? Jimmy Stewart was 6′ 3″ and Jean Arthur was 5′ 3″ and in You Can’t Take It with You (1938), Stewart looks like he could dribble Arthur down the court if he wanted to. Did Capra shoot them that way, the tall and the short, on purpose, or  had he not learned how to do the framing trick that would make them seem more equal? Fast forward to something like The Stratton Story (1949) and I’ll bet you don’t see Stewart looming over June Allyson, who was 3″ shorter than Arthur. Something to look into.

YCTIwY is based on the Kaufman and Hart Pulitzer-winning play and it’s Capra at his life-and-America-are-grand best, and offhand, I can’t think of a sadder and more dispiriting movie to sit watching, if while listening to Barrymore’s speech about “isms” or his disinclination to pay any taxes since they’ll only be spent on battleships,  you happen at the same time to be pondering the fact that the movie was made in 1938. Like attending a wedding one day before the groom’s regiment leaves for the front.

But assuming that you’re not brooding about the past in that way while you watch, YCTIwY carries you along like the Rapids Ride at the Manhattan Water Park. Watching it at the same time as She’s Out of My League (2010), I realized how tightly it’s made. The two movies: one, knitting, the other, crochet. In the time that it takes Jay Baruchel and Alice Eve to consume their dinner outdoors in downtown Pittsburgh, YCTIwY has run down the rails from a xylophone number to a gunpowder accident, with Arthur’s visit to Stewart’s parents thrown in.

(Parenthetically, as indicated by the parentheses, there is a scene at the beginning of SOoML in which Alice Eve walks through the Pittsburgh airport, stopping all male traffic as she strides along in her red high heels, preceded by her cleavage and posterierceded by her flowing blond hair. We’re required to suspend our disbelief just a tiny bit because, although she is looking mighty fine in the scene, and is backed by a supportive musical soundtrack, maybe she’s not… quite… that fine. But we get the point. The thing is, I was reminded of my first job after college, wherein I sat at a desk in a very large room filled exclusively with men of all ages dressed in short-sleeve white shirts and dark ties. Every afternoon at two, the boss’ daughter pushed a mail cart through the room. We knew that she was coming because there was another room just like ours through the doorway to the south and we could hear the silence fall there at one fifty-five. This young innocent with her cart and Virgin-Mary blank stare and exaggerated secondary characteristics, dressed like a Burger-King hooker, was the prototype, the ur-babe, the apotheosis of show-stoppers. No one, including yours truly, could get enough of her. Then when she had passed on to the next room to the north and the cone of silence moved out with her, we all  slumped back in our chairs in unison, shaking our heads, rolling up our fingers in our ties, spent.)

Watching Barrymore also brought me down somewhat for another reason, as I was reminded of his brother’s downward spiral into terminal alcoholism, whereas I was drinking Pepsodent-flavored Mogen David out of the kids’ Donald Duck bathroom cup because there was nothing else in the house but the Everclear we use to cook pork-chops flambe.

But whatever else, the movie did jerk some tears, happy tears, in the end.

Movie notes:

– The best thing that ever happened to Capra was hooking up with Stewart.

– Back in ’38,”giving 110%” was already in the dialog.

– So was “arrested for selling dope.”

– I wonder if the saying-the-blessing-at-the-dinner-table scenes carried a different resonance in ’38 than they do today?

– Kaufman and Hart have the wise old Barrymore in the end sell his house, causing the whole neighborhood to be dispossessed without him saying boo about it. Odd? Or does all come right so quickly after that that the playwrights considered themselves off the hook?

– The best part of the movie for me was Edward Arnold demonstrating his powerful onscreen presence whilst throwing his weight around.

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4 Responses

  1. Barrymore was great in You Can’t Take It With You. Someday I would like to watch this back-to-back with It’s A Wonderful Life. Goes to show his versatility as an actor.

  2. I absolutely love this movie. Missed it at a cinema last week, too.

  3. When I saw this movie, I said, “That’s my family.” Well, my family lived in Chicago, and a few other details are different, but you could not make up my family either. My grandfather gave most of Chicago “colonic irrigations” because he studied with Dr. Kellogg (see The Road to Wellness–book, not movie). One of my aunts accused him of child abuse and didn’t speak to my other two aunts for 40 years, though they had a moving and spectacular make-up scene worthy of a movie. Then one of my cousins became fluent in Mandarin, a millionaire in China and Taiwan, and a national heroine in Taiwan. http://www.chfn.org.tw/en/index_e.htm (make sure you click on the link for English unless like Joanna, you are fluent in Chinese). Then there’s the uncle who got a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Genius award. http://www.georgeperle.net/index.html. Uncle George took me to a performance of the “Rites of Spring” at the New York City Ballet once, and talked to me about knowing Stravinsky and hearing him talk about the riot at the first performance in Paris.

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