You Can’t Take It with You

You Can't Take it With You
Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

A strong hit on Broadway, “You Can’t Take It With You” is also a big hit on film. It is still playing in legit form. The New York Music Hall engagement of the George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart comedy being in advance of national release of the picture, date of which is Sept. 29 but likely to be set farther back than that. Of interest will be study of the effect the picture run has on the play’s Broadway business.

A long picture (126 minutes) and not lending itself comfortably to double billing or engagements where stage shows are also used because of difficulty of turnover, “You Can’t Take It With You” could have been edited down a bit here and there, though as standing it is never tiresome. The tempo is generally fast and there are no sudden spurts or sharp letdowns. None the less, here and there the editor, Gene Havlick, might have eliminated some detail without injury. There might have been some slight improvement through a shortening of the running time.

This is one of the higher priced plays to be bought in history, Columbia having taken the rights for $200,000. Production, not calling calling for anything elaborate but involving expense in Frank Capra, producer-director; Robert Riskin, who adapted, and a large, capable cast of players, brought the negative cost to around a reported $1.2 million. It will get all of that back and much more, with business for the theatres also averaging high. In all ways figured, smash takings are inevitable. For the masses and bound to get a strong play in the provinces as well as large key downtown runs, it is fine audience material and over the heads of no one. The comedy is wholly American, wholesome, homespun, human, appealing, and touching in turn.

The wackier comedy side contrasts with a somewhat serious, philosophical note which may seem a little overstressed on occasion, although on the whole the Kaufman-Hart piece is not supposed to be entirely reasonable as to cause, effect and result. The Vanderhoff family, alone, is a travesty. Tribe is played appealingly but screwily, the antics of the polyglot combination of grandpa, daughter, son-in-law, grandchildren and hangers-on, including a meek adding machine operator turned inventor, and a ballet teacher, being basically for creation of fun. Capra succeeds in getting much of that from the Vanderhoff bunch, mostly under their humble but partly mad-house roof.

On the other hand and to another extreme, Capra makes banker Kirby and his establishment a colussus of imagination, with the big financier and his lovesick son doing things that might be a trifle off-keel as to expectation. The romance between James Stewart and Jean Arthur is the keystone of the comedy and played legit in most respects, albeit it forms the basis for much of the laughs drawn. Other comedy elements are registered at the expense of Edward Arnold, the stuff-shirt banker, and his wife, played excellently by Mary Forbes. The link that is formed between the modest, homey Vanderhoff coterie and the very rich Kirbys, created principally through the romance of the Arthur-Stewart pair, is a bit unbelievable but for the purposes of entertainment has license.

Stoutset comedy scenes revolve around the action in the Vanderhoff home as everyone proceeds with what they want to do. Lionel Barrymore plays the harmonica, his married, middle-aged daughter is typing plays that’ll never sell, with a kitten cutely used as a paperweight; one of her daughters is practicing dancing; her husband is at the xylophone, and others are testing firecrackers or doing something else. Capra moves these scenes into swing beautifully under smart timing. The sequence with the income tax man is a honey. Another is the sequence in which the visiting Kirbys are taken for a slapstick ride amidst what seems a nuthouse gang. Still another which approaches a howl is the night court session. A night club stretch is also rather funny.

A park bench serves as the setting for a brief but very natural and well performed love sequence, topped by a Big Apple bit with some urchins which gets by because it has a purpose in connection with the nitery laughs following.

Miss Arthur, the very appealing quality of her speaking voice carrying her far on the screen and again here, acquits herself creditably. Stewart is not a strong romantic lead opposite her but does satisfactorily in the love scenes. Others are tops from Lionel Barrymore down. Barrymore is on crutches, indulging his hobbies and his homey philosophies. Those in his three-ring circus home include Miss Arthur, Spring Byington, Ann Miller, Samuel S. Hinds, Donald Meek, Halliwell Hobbes, Dub Taylor and the visiting Mischa Auer, plus the colored help, Lillian Yarbo and Eddie Anderson. Arnold is a dandy banker type, a fine selection for the part, while lessers are H.B. Warner and the judge of the night court, Harry Davenport. Latter’s brief footage adds to swell results. The panic in the courtroom is all pointed for laughs except for the break between Stewart and Miss Arthur under rather fiery, denunciatory circumstances when Miss Arthur hands it pepperily to the Kirbys.

Riskin’s adaptation, retaining as much of the original Kaufman-Hart dialog as possible, adding for other parts, represents a capable job. It was a one-man assignment of important propositions.

Settings are not elaborate but good and the photography of Joseph Walker and crew all that might be desired.


1938: Outstanding Production (Columbia), Director (Frank Capra)

Nominations: Best Supp. Actress (Spring Byington), Screenplay (Robert Riskin), Cinematography (Joseph Walker ), Editing (Gene Havlick ), Sound (Columbia Studio Sound Department, John Livadary, Sound Director )

You Can’t Take It with You

  • Production: Columbia. Director Frank Capra; Producer Frank Capra; Screenplay Robert Riskin. At Radio City Music Hall, N.Y., week Sept. 1, '38.
  • Crew: Camera Joseph Walker; Editor Gene Havlick; Music Dimitri Tiomkin; Art Director Stephen Goosson, Lionel Banks (B&W) Available on VHS, DVD. Original review text from 1938. Running time: 126 MIN.
  • With: Alice Sycamore - Jean Arthur Martin Vanderhoff - Lionel Barrymore Tony Kirby - James Stewart Anthony P. Kirby - Edward Arnold Kolekhov - Mischa Auer Essie Carmichael - Ann Miller Penny Sycamore - Spring Byington Paul Sycamore - Samuel S. Hinds Poppis - Donald Meek Ramsey - H.B. Warner De Pinna - Halliwell Hobbes Ed Carmichael - Dub Taylor Mrs. Anthony Kirby - Mary Forbes Rheba - Lillian Yarbo Donald - Eddie Anderson John Blakely - Clarence Wilson Professor - Josef Swickard Maggie O'Neill - Ann Doran Schmidt - Christian Rub Mrs. Schmidt - Bodil Rosing Henderson - Charles Lane Judge - Harry Davenport