You Can’t Take It With You
A lot of people don’t like the films of Frank Capra, finding them to be too simplistic and sentimental, among other failings. Well, it’s a cynical age, but I am a big fan of most of them, such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Arsenic and Old Lace, and of course It’s a Wonderful Life. The man won three Best Director Oscars in five years, and in the ‘30s was the biggest name in Hollywood. Then he fell out of fashion, and for the last thirty years of his life sat sadly on the sidelines, unable to get financing for another film. It’s probably just as well, as he seems to be to have lost his touch with his last four movies.
But I never really warmed to this one. It has a lot of very good stuff in it, but the overall message is misleading at best, and downright crazy at worst. It is based on a stage play and takes place mostly in a big house inhabited by a weird and oddly unappealing group of non-conformists, each following his or her dream, but with no visible means of support. There is Ann Miller in a very early role (she was only fifteen, but is playing older) as an aspiring dancer. She dances all the time, and is incredibly annoying. There is Dub Taylor seriously miscast as a vibraphone player, who is also annoying. There is Mischa Auer as a slapstick Russian wrestler, ditto annoying. But the most irritating of all are two men who manufacture fireworks in the basement, and test them indiscriminately and stupidly. I didn’t find any of that funny.
The story concerns Jean Arthur as the granddaughter of the patriarch of the family, Lionel Barrymore, and her romance with Jimmy Stewart, the son of a ruthless banker, played by Edward Arnold. Lionel got off the rat race thirty years ago and collected his menagerie of weirdoes, and thinks that everyone can do what he did. But we learn nothing about how he pays for the groceries, or the salaries of his Negro cook and her handyman boyfriend (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson). (The casual racism of this age will make you wince. The man is proud that he is “on relief,” and when he ends up in jail he looks around and says something like “I’m back home!”)
Now, I don’t mean to suggest for a minute that people should slog through life in a job they hate. I myself took the road less traveled, and I have never regretted it. (Okay, maybe when the cupboard was bare …) But it is not an easy path. It is not always fun and games, a lark that is sure to result in happiness. Unless you are incredibly lucky and/or incredibly talented, it can be a long, frustrating struggle. This movie just blithely dismisses all that, makes it look like all you have to do is just take off into the wild blue yonder, and everything will be fine. This is dishonest, even for a sentimentalist like Frank Capra.