A good-natured but decidedly eccentric family meets a new friend.
WINNER of 2 OSCARS: Best Director and Best Picture
Nominated for 5 more OSCARS: Best Supporting Actress (Spring Byington), Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Sound, Best Screenplay
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Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You (1938) is a wonderfully comical and heartwarming film, which, although rooted in its time period, is strangely relevant today. It is very idealistic (typical of Capra) and problematic in many ways in terms of realism and race representation, but it is by no means simple. It triumphs in character and comedic elements—the cast interacts wonderfully and brings the play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman to life, and the direction illustrates different ways of life in America, and the possibility of vitality and decency in society.
The center of the film is a very eccentric middle-class family, who live together in the same house and all do what they love to do. Their object is not money, but simple happiness. The leader and spokesman of this family is Grandpa Vanderhof (played by the incomparable Lionel Barrymore), and the heroine Alice Sycamore (the lovely and spunky Jean Arthur) is his granddaughter. Other wonderful members of the family include Penny Sycamore, Alice's mother and Vanderhof's daughter (played by Spring Byington, the perfect mother), and Essie, Alice's sister (played by the always-dancing Ann Miller). Alice falls in love with her boss, Tony Kirby (a young James Stewart), the son of a prominent banker, and he with her. The drama (or comedy) happens when Tony brings his upper-class and snobby parents to dinner at Alice's chaotic house. We see the interaction of two families of different classes who have different philosophies of what makes America great: the opportunity of freedom or of money? Little do they know, Kirby's new business deal is trying to buy the Vanderhof house (along with the whole block) and a new plot comes out of this coincidence.
That said, the film still has an indomitable optimism and explores very contemporary political and social issues. The corporate greed portrayed in the film by Mr Kirby (Edward Arnold) is still very relevant and alive today-- cold-hearted bankers trying to wipe out old neighborhoods to make way for big business. Kirby and Vanderhof are two opposing philosophies of America--the workaholic businessman focused on making a fortune and the simple middle-class man content with having fun and being surrounded by family-- and these are still opposing forces that this country struggles with. We know which side Capra is on all the way, and the side we automatically go to. Both must learn to co-exist when their respective children fall in love, and that really means the self-important Kirbys coming around to the much happier and warmhearted lifestyle of the (at first) eccentric family. The other relevant issue I just discovered in this film is Tony Kirby's dream career, which happens to be developing green energy, specifically solar power. There was no talk of green energy in 1938! Well, that just goes to show that eccentricities and idealistic imaginations in one time period can become extremely real and important in the next.
This film is, seemingly, a fun comedy with romance, zany situations, and typical Hollywood drama. It also has its imperfections in terms of race and self-righteous patriotism. But if one simultaneously digs deeper to reveal contemporary issues and just takes it as it is, it is at once a very enjoyable and surprisingly complex film. It explores the combating social forces in America, and shows the possibility of a good life in which the only things one needs are love, friendship, and freedom.