11 July 2002 | gaityr
It Always *Is* A Wonderful Life...
I wouldn't exactly call YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU (YCTIWY) Capra's forgotten movie--after all, it *did* win the Best Picture Oscar in its year. And I *have* heard of this film by word of mouth previously, though perhaps not as frequently or with as much ubiquity as some of Capra's other films. Compared to IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE and MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, for example, YCTIWY distinctly has the status of a 'minor classic'. I don't believe this is deserved, even if themes and (co-)stars are shared between these movies: YCTIWY should definitely be far better known and remembered than it actually is.
First of all, the story-telling is flawless. It very cleverly sets up the two very different families, the Vanderhof/Sycamores (an offbeat family trading most importantly in happiness) and the Kirbys (a stiff up tight banking family trading mostly in weapons). To complete the biggest deal of his career, Anthony Kirby Sr (Edward Arnold) must buy up the last house in a neighbourhood, and of course, this house belongs to Martin Vanderhof (a delightful Lionel Barrymore). The movie pleasantly surprised me in *not* having young Tony Kirby (James Stewart) be assigned to get Vanderhof to sell his house and thereby falling in love with Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) and her zany family. Rather, he was in love with her to begin with, and loved her regardless of what he thought of her family. (Though it would be impossible to hate any of them, I feel!) The story really is simple: Tony loves Alice no matter what, and doesn't want her or her family to put on a show to impress his own family. When he surprises her by turning up a day early for a dinner engagement, the Kirbys meet the Vanderhof/Sycamores for who they truly are, wind up in jail, and along the way, learn a little bit about being real human beings.
There are several delightful scenes in the film as well, all beautifully filmed and connected such that the story is a coherent whole. I'm especially partial to practically any scene with James Stewart wooing Jean Arthur (those two, quite seriously, make the cutest couple imaginable)--I love it when he sort of proposes to her. "Scratch hard enough and you'll find a proposal." Or that lovely intimate scene in the park where he directs her to a seat like he would at the ballet, or when they start dancing with the neighbourhood children. The scene in the restaurant was also amusing, when Tony kept warning Alice that there was a scream on the way, building it up so perfectly that *she* wound up screaming before he did. It's hard to beat the scene in night court too, when Capra foreshadows pretty much the exact same scene and sentiment in the forthcoming IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, when all of Vanderhof's friends chip in to pay off his fine. It's sweet, it's real, and it's something you really do wish could still happen in this world. Even the littlest things like Grandpa Vanderhof's dinnertime prayers are enough to remind the viewer of what a world could be like if we kept our values simple, our wants satisfied, and ourselves happy.
Second of all, the acting is superlative. How could it *not* be, with a cast like this? Evidently I was completely charmed by James Stewart and Jean Arthur, who are both incredibly believable both as real people and movie stars, and who together make Tony and Alice an utterly credible, true-to-life couple. Edward Arnold was great as the stuffed shirt Anthony Kirby Sr too--his eventual 'thawing' was something that could easily have been played in too exaggerated a fashion, but both the actor and director, I suspect, are too good to have allowed that to happen. I also had great fun watching Ann Miller in her secondary role as Essie Sycamore, Alice's dancing sister. I sincerely hope that every person making this film had just as much fun as I did watching it, because the whole secondary cast was excellent, and I loved all the characters we were introduced to, particularly the entire Sycamore family with their attendant friends (the ex-iceman DePinna, or the toymaker Poppins) and even their servants Rheba and Donald, who were treated almost as much as part of the family as could be expected at that time. But my greatest praise would have to be reserved for Lionel Barrymore as Martin Vanderhof--a sweeter, lovelier old man you just couldn't imagine, and a complete change from his much-better-known Mr. Potter in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. He really does make Grandpa Vanderhof very much a real person, from his reminiscences about Grandma Vanderhof, to his messing around with the IRS agent, to his harmonica-playing and evident love of life and people.
I really could not say enough good things about this movie (which I prefer to IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE). It'll make you laugh, it'll make you cry, and quite frankly, it'll make you glad to be alive. Not many movies can do that. And it's most certainly true that you can't take your money with you... but what you *can* do is take this movie and its message to heart. 10/10, without a doubt.