OBPC #11: You Can’t Take It with You, 1938

Rating: 3 stars (out of 4)

You Can’t Take It with You (1938):  Dir. Frank Capra.  Written by: Robert Riskin.  Based upon the play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.  Starring: Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold, and Spring Byington.  Unrated.  Running time: 126 minutes.

Four years after the unexpected hit of It Happened One Night, Frank Capra nabbed another Best Director Award (his third!) and Best Picture win with this lesser-known screwball comedy.  Based upon the Pulitzer-Prize winning play, the film would unite Capra with some of his future regulars: Lionel Barrymore, Jean Arthur, and of course, Jimmy Stewart.

In the midst of the Depression, corporate boss Arnold P. Kirby has stumbled upon the deal of a lifetime—problem is, he needs to convince a stubborn homeowner to sell his residence in order to make it.  Little does he know his son has his sights on marrying his secretary—the granddaughter of stubborn homeowner.  Hijinks and mayhem ensue when the two families meet, including an elaborate court case (Zola anyone?) and high-profile arrest (complete with fireworks!).

Well-known for his feel-good fare, Capra populates his film with clever set-pieces and sharp dialogue, courtesy of Kaufman/Hart/Riskin.  And a cast this impressive hasn’t been assembled since 1932’s Grand Hotel.  Lionel Barrymore, who would play Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life, plays a town hero just as well as a town villain.  Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur have some of the best scenes here, bringing some delightful mischief and chemistry to their performances—at a time when things like timing and delivery in comedy actually mattered.

The film stumbles a bit in its third act, stretching credibility and suspension of disbelief.  The family dinner has consequences that forces characters into introspection, jarring with the frenetic energy we’ve just witnessed.  What’s more, the film wears its themes on its sleeve—if you miss them, get your hearing checked.

I wish the film had maintained the frantic energy of the first half, especially considering the second half takes itself much too seriously, and prolongs the inevitable reconciliation.  Even so, it’s still a treat.

Next film: Gone with the Wind, 1939

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