You Can’t Take It with You has three major plot lines, all interconnected, but separate enough the film often feels stretched. There’s the rather lovely romance between stenographer Jean Arthur and her boss, bank vice president James Stewart. There’s Edward Arnold’s attempt to create a munitions monopoly to take advantage of the coming world war. He’s Stewart’s dad; the only thing standing in the way of his monopoly is acquiring a single piece of property (to build a factory to force his competitor to capitulate). Lionel Barrymore owns the property. He doesn’t want to sell, he’s also Arthur’s grandfather.
Everything intersects eventually, though when Arnold and wife Mary Forbes are disapproving of Arthur, Barrymore, and the rest of the family, they don’t know Barrymore’s also holding up the big deal.
Barrymore runs the house as sort of a hippie commune; albeit a late thirties, Depression-era commune. Arthur’s the normal one. Her mom, Spring Byington, is mildly eccentric, always finding one creative hobby or another. Samuel S. Hinds is Arthur’s dad; he makes fireworks in the basement with Halliwell Hobbes, who showed up delivering the ice one day and never left. Similarly, Dub Taylor came to dinner once and stayed, marrying Arthur’s sister, Ann Miller. Miller’s got a Russian dance instructor (displaced by the Revolution), Mischa Auer. The film introduces Barrymore’s eclectic brood via Donald Meek, who Barrymore recruits away from his awful office job. Also in the house are housekeeper Lillian Yarbo and her fiancé, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson. Going to have to talk about Yarbo and Anderson and the film’s treatment of them at some point. On one hand, they’re Black characters with decently sized parts. On the other, Anderson is the only person in the film who Robert Riskin’s script portrays as lazy.
Before getting to that aspect… the better aspects of the script, which are many. The movie opens with Arnold’s prospective business deal (and introduces Stewart as the disinterested boss’s son), then goes to Barrymore who meets up with Meek, then brings him home. The family gets introduced. Then, twenty minutes into the film, top-billed Arthur finally appears. And begins she and Stewart’s possibly star-crossed, rich boy, middle class girl (not to mention the commune) romance. The first ninety minutes are about the romance and its possibilities and realities. Stewart’s mom, Forbes, is opposed. Her thin characterization will also have to be discussed in a bit. But Stewart and Arthur are in love and, based on their courting scenes, love might be able to conquer all. Joseph Walker’s photography is never better than during Stewart and Arthur’s date night. The actors radiate chemistry, with Arthur beaming at Stewart’s wooing in the two shots (then getting to beaming in her close-ups). It’s also some of Capra’s best direction, particularly when the action then moves to a slightly slapstick posh restaurant scene (from Central Park where Stewart shows he’s not a snob by palling around with some street urchins).
Capra always keeps You Can’t Take It with You moving, he always moves between the various subplots (everyone in the house has something going on, usually with crossover, even if it’s a throwaway C plot), but his best direction is when it’s Arthur and Stewart or Arthur and Barrymore. There’s this devastating quiet scene where Barrymore and Arthur talk about love. Barrymore’s got some phenomenal moments in the film, but that scene has his best acting. He gets to reflect, not act. Usually he’s acting. Or if he’s reflecting, Capra isn’t showcasing it because there’s a lot of other stuff going on. The scene also establishes Barrymore’s reflection, so it only needs check-ins in the bigger scenes. The film’s beautifully constructed; Capra and Riskin excel at it.
Turns out, however, those scenes aren’t actually Capra’s best directed in the film because the third act reveals the protagonist of the film isn’t Barrymore, or Arthur, or Stewart, it’s Arnold. You Can’t Take It with You, somewhere in the second act, becomes about Arnold and Barrymore, then Arnold. Arnold’s conundrum sequence in the third act is Capra’s best direction in the picture. Arnold gets this long sequence to himself and is fantastic. He goes from being a hideous capitalist to someone you can believe Stewart likes having–or liked having before the film started, in the distant past–as a dad. Unfortunately, the film can’t organically tie all the threads together at the end, skipping over Barrymore and the family’s storyline, mega-contriving a finish for Arthur and Stewart, mostly so Arnold gets a satisfactory one. It’s sort of a good full circle since he started the film, but it’s also unfortunate. All of Riskin’s inventive plotting throughout the film and nothing for the finish.
Still, thanks to the acting (and the previous material) the finale is still quite effective. So effective you can almost forget about the plotting problems. Almost.
All of the acting in the film is good, some of it is superior. Stewart and Arthur are great as the romantic leads; they both get some rather dramatic moments as well. Arthur’s better than Stewart in them (but her writing is better). Byington and Hinds are lovable, Taylor and Miller are cute, Auer’s awesome. Meek’s adorable. Harry Davenport is great as the judge who presides over the end of second act night court where everyone’s in trouble (including the narrative because that point’s where things could naturally finish).
Arnold’s fantastic. Barrymore’s fantastic. Arnold gets more of the dramatic acting, Barrymore has to do his dramatic acting (for the most part) amid slapstick absurdity. It’s their movie in the end.
Now the more obvious problems. Riskin tries to avoid getting into Barrymore’s political philosophy too much, but what’s left in the film is some nonsensical jingoistic anti-organized capitalism thing. There’s a funny sequence with an IRS investigator (Charles Lane) where Barrymore’s raving against the government and the film never clarifies whether it’s just federal he hates or local too. Barrymore’s a de facto progressive, but it’s not like Yarbo or Anderson ever get to dine with the family. And as dismissive as the film gets about Yarbo, it’s nothing compared to how it characterizes Anderson solely as a relief defrauder.
And Riskin (and Capra) have nothing but ire for Forbes, who’s really the second biggest female part in the film–Byington’s omnipresent but as support–and Forbes is a thinly sketched society harpy. The filmmakers go so far as to pay her heartlessness off Arnold; as he starts to see the humanity in the poors and reflect on his ways, Forbes doubles down and gets even more shallow. Or at least maintains the shallow.
Makes for a handful of queasy scenes where Riskin and Capra go for the cheapest jokes possible.
Nice enough Dimitri Tiomkin score. Okay editing from Gene Havlick; the actors do so well in their two shots and group shots, you almost never want it to go to close-up. It feels empty.
Look fast for an uncredited Ward Bond.
You Can’t Take It with You has some great dialogue, some fine direction, some exceptional performances; Capra and Riskin are willing to go long with the things they care about (Arthur and Stewart’s chemistry, Arnold’s character arc, the whole pre-court jail sequence), but they don’t know how to make it fit in the narrative. The result is an often glorious, very busy mess of a motion picture.
This post is part of the Fourth Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted by Crystal of In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood.