The situation is timeless, but the setting is very much of the moment.
A young man and a young woman are in love. They have dreams for the future. Wars and rumors of wars stoke the fires of fear, and while some dream of getting rich making the tools of destruction, others wish to harness the power of the imagination to find cleaner, more abundant energy to enrich all our lives. The young woman speaks of the lessons her father has impressed upon her–to ask yourself what you want from life (and pursue it) rather than to live in a state of fear and make decisions from a place of fear:
Most people these days are run by fear. Fear of what they eat, fear of what they drink, fear of their jobs, their future, fear of their health. They’re scared to save money, scared to save it. You know what ‘—‘? The people who commercialize on fear. You know they scare you to death so they can sell you something you don’t need.
The woman is Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur), and while she sounds like she’s been cribbing from Barry Glassner’s The Culture of Fear (200), she is actually speaking to her fiancée over four decades before Glassner’s book was written. Her That fiancée is Tony Kirby (Jimmy Stewart), and, while he’s on the wrong side of this film’s Main Street vs. Wall Street divide, he does sound like he could get a place on the Obama administration’s green jobs team. He’s got a cushy vice-president’s job set up because of his father’s wealth, but he explains his deepest longings to Alice this way:
I remember in college another guy and I had an idea [….] We wanted to find out what made the grass grow green. Now that sounds silly and everything, but it’s the biggest research problem in the world today and I’ll tell you why. Because…there’s a tiny little engine in the green of this grass and the green of the trees that has the mysterious gift of being able to take energy from the rays of the sun and store it up. You see that’s how the heat and power and coal and oil and wood is stored up. Well, we thought if we could find the secret of all those millions of little engines in this green stuff, we could make big ones. And then we could take all the power we could ever need right from the sun’s rays.
What I’m saying is that the film is ripe for a remake. (Okay, my wife said it first, but I agree.)
You Can’t Take It With You was released four years after It Happened One Night, two after Mister Deeds Goes to Town, and one after Lost Horizon. It was released the year before Mister Smith Goes to Washington and four before the first in Capra’s Why We Fight series. Capra had already won two Oscars for Best Director, and You Can’t Take It With You would garner him his third. He was at the height of his game.
And that, in fact, may be the problem with the film. It has all the earnestness of a Capra film, but it lack the whimsy of Kaufman and Hart’s play. Although the play opened in the winter of 1936, its sensibility is more zany twenties than somber thirties, and it’s “do whatever makes you happy” coda may have already seemed a little too naive to some as the depression trudged on in America and fascism spread across Europe.
The play You Can’t Take It With You is timeless in some of its own themes, making it a staple of campus theater departments everywhere. (Yeah, I did it in high school; I played Boris Kholenkhov.) But if it was more of a ’30s version of Meet The Parents than an acerbic social commentary on the class (and its values) that caused the current financial and moral crisis facing America, that hardly seems like the stuff Important Pictures are made from.
I’m mostly on the side of the Sycamores and the Vanderhof’s, but the insistence the deck is stacked a little too strongly in favor of one side over the other and thus making the young lovers (Alice in particular) look rather simple for taking too long to get together. It’s not that I don’t appreciate and believe in Grandpa’s message, it’s just that if you are going to try to make the film social commentary instead of merely comedy, I would have liked to have seen some 30s equivalent of Trey Parker or Matt Stone invading the fringes of the film somewhere to remind us that liberals can be as venal and misguided and silly as establishment folk can be stuffy. This is evident enough in the play; at times Alice is embarrassed by her family, and the resolution is as much about her owning her heritage as getting the Kirby’s to accept it. Here she moves back and forth between mortified embarrassment to indignant defense, making her rejection of Tony seem arbitrary and pointless.
If the tension between the frivolity of the source material and the seriousness of Capra’s usage of it at times seem to pull the film in different directions and cause it to plod when it should zip, the acting generally covers over the sluggishness of the pacing and makes it a worthwhile endeavor on the whole. Stewart is who we thought he was, and Lionel Barrymore–well it’s hard to fathom in today’s day and age that he already had 150 credits to his name and still had fourteen years of Dr. Kildaire and more before him. They are very different films, of course, but watching these two icons on the screen together reminded me of seeing Brando and Pacino in The Godfather. Even the casual cinephile knows Stewart, so try concentrating on Jean Arthur in the following scene. Unless you’re playing Hamlet, acting is more than fifty percent listening. She says her lines well enough, but she’s also a very generous actress, giving her partners something to play off of. Her performance might be the hardest to duplicate in our remake, as acting has become more and more about calling attention to oneself. According to IMDB, Arthur worked with John Ford, Frank Capra, George Stevens and Billy Wilder. Talent knows talent, I guess.