Category Archives: Classics

You Can’t Take It with You (1938, Frank Capra)

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.

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Robert Riskin, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart; director of photography, Joseph Walker; edited by Gene Havlick; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jean Arthur (Alice Sycamore), James Stewart (Tony Kirby), Lionel Barrymore (Martin Vanderhof), Edward Arnold (Anthony P. Kirby), Mary Forbes (Mrs. Anthony Kirby), Spring Byington (Penny Sycamore), Samuel S. Hinds (Paul Sycamore), Dub Taylor (Ed Carmichael), Ann Miller (Essie Carmichael), Donald Meek (Poppins), Mischa Auer (Kolenkhov), Halliwell Hobbes (DePinna), Lillian Yarbo (Rheba), Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson (Donald), Clarence Wilson (Blakely), Charles Lane (Henderson), and Harry Davenport (Judge).



blogathon-barrymore

THIS POST IS PART OF THE FOURTH ANNUAL BARRYMORE TRILOGY BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Murder in the Fleet (1935, Edward Sedgwick)

Murder in the Fleet is a reasonably diverting little B murder mystery; Frank Wead and Joseph Sherman’s script is almost better than the film deserves, given it doesn’t even run seventy minutes and doesn’t even bother pretending it’s got subplots. Well, outside top-billed and sort of lead Robert Taylor’s romantic troubles with blue blood Jean Parker. And then the slapstick rivalry between Nat Pendleton and Ted Healy, mostly over Una Merkel.

It’s visitor day on a Navy cruiser–the film obviously shot on one, sometimes to better effect than other times (the constant projection shots for the exterior deck scenes are flat)–but it’s also the day a new firing system needs to get installed. A top secret firing system. Taylor’s in charge of that installation, Pendleton’s on his crew. Only both men want to see their respective gals, Parker and Merkel. Thanks to the contrived presence of civilian mechanical something or other Healy (who’s had a rivalry with Pendleton for some time), Merkel ends up onboard. Parker’s there to try to get Taylor to quit his low-paying Navy job and go work for her dad. Her character’s a hideous human being, something the captain (Arthur Byron) tells her to her face in a lively scene.

There’s also a foreign dignitary visiting–Mischa Auer in semi-yellowface, an uncredited Keye Luke as his secretary–and the film throws some suspicion their way once the murders start taking place.

Donald Cook is in charge of investigating, but he’s a dipshit (and Taylor’s ostensible rival in general), so whenever there’s action to be taken, it’s on Taylor.

It’s a solid cast and the screenwriters give the supporting characters enough personality in their dialogue to make them somewhat sympathetic most of the time. As Fleet goes on, it gets more and more difficult to suspect any of the crew. Even the obvious targets. Cook, for example, would make a lot of sense personality-wise–he’s jealous no one tries to bribe him, just Taylor–but he’s got an onscreen alibi.

Taylor’s a strong lead. Byron’s great as the captain. Pendleton and Healy are fun. Pendleton and Merkel are cute. The whole thing about her throwing over Pendleton for the odious Healy… doesn’t give Merkel much credit. Parker’s successful being a terrible human being? The movie reforms her along the way, won over by the U.S. Navy, which shouldn’t a surprise given the U.S. Navy’s involvement in the making of the film.

Director Sedgwick does all right too. He’ll occasionally have some really interesting shots, then he’ll also have some really boring ones. The interesting ones tend to be in the cruiser interior, where he’s presumably constrained and has to be inventive. On deck, he’s got the same medium two shot over and over again. Or a long two shot. They’re always the same boring profile shots against projection. But when he’s actually got depth of in the shot? Usually decent. Cinematographer Milton R. Krasner does well shooting both the mediocre and the inventive, he’s more than capable.

Murder in the Fleet is never exciting (the murderer reveal is a shrug), but it’s always fine. Except Merkel taking Healy seriously as a suitor, of course. Pendleton might be a bit of a doof, but he’s an adorable doof.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Edward Sedgwick; screenplay by Frank Wead and Joseph Sherman, based on a story by Sedgwick; director of photography, Milton R. Krasner; edited by Conrad A. Nervig; produced by Lucien Hubbard; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Robert Taylor (Lt. Tom Randolph), Arthur Byron (Capt. John Winslow), Nat Pendleton (‘Spud’ Burke), Ted Healy (Mac O’Neill), Jean Parker (Betty Lansing), Una Merkel (‘Toots’ Timmons), Donald Cook (Lt. Cmdr. David Tucker), Raymond Hatton (Al Duval), Jean Hersholt (Victor Hanson), Richard Tucker (Jeffries), Tom Dugan (‘Greasy’), Mischa Auer (Kamchukan Consul).


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Vivacious Lady (1938, George Stevens)

Vivacious Lady strengths easily outweigh its weaknesses, but those weaknesses have a way of compounding on each other as the film moves to its conclusion. The most obvious–and usually forgiveable–problem is how the film can’t decide what to do with Ginger Rogers, the Vivacious Lady. Not the film, sorry, the script. Director Stevens, photographer Robert De Grasse, costume designer Irene, Rogers’s costars, they can all work with Rogers to great success. The script just can’t figure out how to make her “vivacious” and sweet simultaneously. Unless it’s opposite leading man James Stewart, because the film is able to sail over any troubled scenes on their chemistry alone. It’s how the rest of the world treats Rogers where there are problems. Read: how the script has the rest of the world treat her.

And it’s not Code consideration because Vivacious Lady establishes very clearly early on Rogers and Stewart are anxious get a bed of their own. It’s the film’s most vibrant theme, no less.

The film starts with New England college professor–associate professor–Stewart in New York City trying to collect his ne’er-do-well, womanizing cousin, James Ellison. Ellison has fallen in love with nightclub performer Rogers, though she hasn’t fallen for him. One look into her eyes and Stewart falls for her too. Turns out the feelings mutual and after spending the night out on the town, they elope and head back to Stewart’s home town.

Only he hasn’t told his overbearing father (and boss) Charles Coburn about it. College president Coburn’s got big plans for Stewart, so long as he stays in line, which means marrying harpy blueblood Frances Mercer. When they arrive in town, Ellison–very affable for a jilted suitor–entertains Rogers while Stewart tries to figure out how to tell dad Coburn and mom Beulah Bondi about the marriage. And to break off his existing engagement to Mercer (who he forgot to tell Rogers about).

Vivacious Lady runs ninety minutes. It takes about twenty minutes to get Rogers, Stewart, and Ellison from New York to the town–Old Sharon. The next half hour is gentle screwball comedy of errors with Stewart trying to tell his parents, but Mercer screws it up or Coburn is such a verbally abusive blowhard–aggrevating Bondi into heart problems–it just never happens. It culminates in Rogers and Mercer getting into a fight. Those thirty or so minutes, ending in the fight, all happen in the first day.

I think the movie takes place over three days. Maybe three and a half.

Anyway. The next portion of the film has Rogers pretending to be a college student so she can spend time with Stewart, who’s now not telling Coburn about their marriage because of the fight. Stewart’s always got some reason for not telling Coburn–a couple times it’s Bondi’s heart condition–it’s mostly just contrived fear of Coburn. Only there’s no way for Stewart and Rogers not to moon at one another, beautifully lighted by De Grasse; their scenes are the best in the film, they radiate infectous chemistry.

But everyone else just whistles at Rogers (she’s vivacious after all), which just draws attention to how little character development she’s had around Stewart. She has more character development with Ellison, Mercer, and Bondi throughout the film than with Stewart. Even during their whirlwind courtship, as Stewart–the film points out–never shuts up about himself. That radiant infectous chemistry covers up for a lot of it, but it’s still a major script deficit.

The other major problems in the script are structure and Coburn’s character. P.J. Wolfson and Ernest Pagano’s script frontloads one supporting cast member and shortchanges another, only to flip their positions in the last third. Wouldn’t be a problem if the movie’s conclusion didn’t rely on that character with the increased presence so much. It works out–pretty well–because the cast’s great, the direction’s great, and the script is (scene by scene) excellent. But the narrative structure is disjointed.

And Coburn. Coburn’s an unlovable bastard. He’s such an unlovable bastard you forget he’s Charles Coburn and he’s (probably) secretly going to turn out to be a lovable bastard. But he’s a bad guy, who gets worse–the script doesn’t imagine anything about these characters before the first scene–and no one seems to acknowledge the level of internal disfunction. And it’d definitely have external effects.

Stewart would be so browbeaten he couldn’t order a meal without consulting Coburn, much less be sent to New York to fetch Ellison; Coburn wouldn’t trust him to do it.

So problems. The film has some big problems. And they’re script problems (though Stevens also produced so he’s not off the hook). But Vivacious Lady is still an outstanding romantic comedy. Rogers and Stewart are glorious together. Separate, Rogers is better. She gets good material on her own. Stewart doesn’t. He’s still funny and charming, but the material’s nothing special. Rogers’s material–whether it’s showing down with Mercer or teaching Bondi to dance–is dynamic.

Ellison’s the film’s secret weapon. He’s a little annoying at the start, but once Vivacious Lady is in its second act and Stewart abandons Rogers for mean Coburn and Mercer (and suffering Bondi), it’s Ellison who provides the picture its affability. The script shortchanges him, but it shortchanges everyone at one point or another.

Bondi’s phenomenal. As wondrous as Rogers and Stewart’s chemistry is onscreen, when Bondi and Rogers get a scene together here and there, they’re able to do so much with the material. Their performances compliment each other beautifully.

Mercer’s fine. It’s a lousy part. Ditto Coburn. He’s a caricature of himself playing a caricature of himself.

Some good comedic bit parts–Phyllis Kennedy as the maid, Franklin Pangborn as an apartment manager. Willie Best is good as the Pullman porter, but the part is gross.

Vivacious Lady is a definite success. However, Rogers, Stewart, Bondi, and Ellison deserve to be a resounding one.

It almost recoups all (or most all) with the final gag. Then tries to one up itself and loses that ground. It’s particularly frustrating.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by George Stevens; screenplay by P.J. Wolfson and Ernest Pagano, based on a story I.A.R. Wylie; director of photography, Robert De Grasse; edited by Henry Berman; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Ginger Rogers (Francey Brent), James Stewart (Peter Morgan Jr.), Charles Coburn (Peter Morgan Sr.), James Ellison (Keith Morgan), Frances Mercer (Helen), Beulah Bondi (Martha Morgan), Phyllis Kennedy (Jenny), Franklin Pangborn (Apartment Manager), Willie Best (Train Porter), and Grady Sutton (Culpepper).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE FRED ASTAIRE AND GINGER ROGERS BLOGATHON HOSTED BY MICHAELA FROM LOVE LETTERS TO OLD HOLLYWOOD AND CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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The Sound Barrier (1952, David Lean)

There’s a lot to The Sound Barrier. Outside the truly magnificent aerial photography, not much of it has to do with the film itself. Other than director Lean and writer Terence Rattigan rewriting actual history to make it so a private British aircraft company “broke” the sound barrier some five years after Chuck Yeager did it for the United States Air Force. And Rattigan and Lean didn’t keep it technically accurate? I guess… anglo-pride or something.

So the gross historical inaccuracies aside, Sound Barrier adds up to being about why toxic masculinity is wonderful and women–like de facto lead Ann Todd–are silly for doubting men in their heartless pursuits. See, Todd’s dad is the owner of the private aircraft company–Ralph Richardson in a performance far better than the film needs or deserves–and he’s willing to sacrifice anyone to break that sound barrier.

Five years after it actually happened. But whatever.

I mean, even if the film’s set in 1947 or whatever–one of the events portrayed happened in 1946–it should’ve been technically accurate. Lean goes out of his way to use that amazing aerial photography of the test flights and so on, why not have an accurate script. But there’s also the problem of John Justin, who’s got kids presumably born after the war ended and they’re not three or four.

The film starts during the war–another weird thing about Sound Barrier is how assured everyone is the war’s end is imminent even when, you know, it’s not–with Todd marrying flier Nigel Patrick. Patrick and Justin are pals. Todd brings Patrick home to meet dad Richardson and brother Denholm Elliot. Elliot’s the best thing in the movie, though Justin’s all right too. Rattigan and Lean don’t have much use for Elliot, however, because he’s not the real man flier Richardson wants him to be. Thank goodness Todd married one in Patrick.

After the war, Patrick starts test piloting jets for Richardson. They’re going to break that sound barrier, even though the whole thing traumatizes Todd. She goes off to the movies during his flights so she doesn’t have to hear it. She’s just a silly woman, however. Patrick tells her so, Richardson tells her so, and by the end of the movie, The Sound Barrier tells her so.

The film’s a melodrama without much in the way of melodramatics. Todd’s performance is flat, ditto Patrick’s. Patrick at least seems like he should be superficial and (not maliciously) insensitive, but Todd is ostensibly the heart of the film. Not so, because she’s not a man. And only men, it turns out, can really experience things. Women are too busy worrying about winter coats and trying to one up the Joneses. Dinah Sheridan, as Justin’s wife, has the entirely thankless role of exemplifying how Todd’s worry-warting is so dumb.

And even though Richardson is awesome, he’s utterly devoid of any humanity. The film revels in it.

There’s no tension, there’s no suspense (the ending is forecast from literally the first scene), there’s no romance. Todd and Patrick do manage to have some chemistry, but it’s only because they’re being held prisoner by controlling Richardson. Silly Patrick even thinks Todd might be right about Richardson being bad news. Thank goodness he comes around; so the film’s not just great fodder for toxic masculinity discussions, there’s also the exceptional patriarchal bent.

Lean’s direction is competent. Rattigan’s script is exceptionally boring. Maybe at the time, if you were a British moviegoer who really hated Americans and willfully ignored recent history, you could get jingoistic about it. But not really, because it’s not about British ingenuity or anything, it’s about Richardson being awesome because he’s a bastard and Todd better come around to realizing it and embracing it. It’s about Todd realizing she’s a silly woman who just needs to listen to the man. It’s all very yucky.

Great photography from Jack Hildyard.

The Sound Barrier is never good. It’s never compelling. It’s absurdly lacking in any kind of insight, whether into its paper thin characters or its made up flight science. It’s not even interested in technical minutiae, which–for a while–seemed like it would be. But it’s never anywhere near as bad as the third act turns out to be. Maybe having a full stop false ending in the second act hurt. It doesn’t matter. The third act and then the finale crash harder than the jet planes do and they make these huge holes in the ground.

Not even plane designer Joseph Tomelty, who’s lovable from five minutes in, can survive that last act.

The Sound Barrier’s bunk.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Produced and directed by David Lean; written by Terence Rattigan; director of photography, Jack Hildyard; edited by Geoffrey Foot; music by Malcolm Arnold; released by British Lion Film Corporation.

Starring Ann Todd (Susan), Nigel Patrick (Tony), Ralph Richardson (J.R.), John Justin (Philip), Denholm Elliott (Chris), Dinah Sheridan (Jess), and Joseph Tomelty (Will).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE DAVID LEAN BLOGATHON HOSTED BY MADDY OF MADDY LOVES HER CLASSIC FILMS.


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