You Can’t Take It With You (1938)

It’s Truly a Wonderful Life

There are those who will hear the name Frank Capra and have a reaction along the lines of “Oh Frank Capra, sentimental, saccharine, manipulative rubbish”. I don’t make apologies when I say that dismissing a film for being sentimental is the nonsense film criticism to end all nonsense criticisms; it stinks! Newsflash, stories have been manipulating people’s emotions since the dawn of time. Pulling of effective sentimentality is a skill and I have not come across a single good reason as to why it is a problem. You Can’t Take It With You is Capra at his most sentimental, manipulative, saccharine and all those other dirty words and I love it for that. So if that’s the crime of the century, then lock me up for life.

The Sycamores are the ultimate eccentric family, in fact eccentric probably the right word, they are complete nuts. They live a counter cultural lifestyle of not working or playing taxes (and somehow getting away with it) and doing whatever makes them happy without a care in the world; people who aren’t afraid to live. There are like cartoon characters who can twist their way out of any situation with people more in tune with reality, such as when Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) manages to convince the timid Mr Poppins (Donald Meek) to stop throwing his life away working as bureaucrat and start having fun. The movie feels ahead of its time and like something which would have been written in the 1960’s. The family’s refusal to pay taxes is ethically questionable, even though Barrymore gives some interesting and humorous rebuttals to not paying taxes (perhaps Wesley Snipes could have used some of Lionel Barrymore’s logic in court) but it’s a movie fantasy, it could never happen in real life.

One the sweetest, most heartwarming scenes in any film ever is when Grandpa Vanderhof tells Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) about how his love for his deceased wife. Ugh, it just kills my poor little soul; a perfect display of Capra’s gift for directing very intimate, emotional scenes in which the rest of the world ceases to exist. I’ll also always remember Barrymore’s monologue on “ismmania” as profound words of wisdom (“when things go a little bad nowadays you go out and get yourself an ‘ism’ and you’re in business”). What’s particularly striking about Barrymore’s role as Grandpa Vanderhof is that he character is the polar opposite of the role of Henry F. Potter he would play in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Likewise there doesn’t seem to be any actress whom James Stewart didn’t share a great dynamic together. James Stewart and Jean Arthur share a perfect chemistry together, pairing the embodiment of the everyman and the embodiment of the everywoman.

You Can’t Take It with You has only earned a status of a minor classic but in my view is Capra’s most overlooked film. There’s so much fun to be had with this film, it is the perfect 30’s comedy. Capra-corn and proud of it!

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