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You Can't Take it With You

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You (1938) earned an Oscar for Best Picture, but compared to the whole of Capra's work over the years, it's far from the best movie he ever produced — it may be beloved by film fans the world over, but it's also a confused, morally muddled mess that fails to involve either as a comedy or a message-movie. Lionel Barrymore stars as 'Grandpa' Martin Vanderhof, a cantankerous old man who stubbornly insists that life is best lived doing only what you want to do — sentiments shared by his expansive household, which includes novelist daughter Penny Sycamore (Spring Byington), her fireworks-making husband Paul (Samuel S. Hinds), their ballet-dancing daughter Essie Carmichael (Ann Miller), her football jock-turned-xylophonist husband Ed (Dub Taylor), and insane ballet instructor Boris Kolenkhov (Mischa Auer), among others. In fact, the only conventional member of the household is Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur), who works as a secretary at a munitions corporation. She's fallen in love with the company's vice-president, scion Tony Kirby (James Stewart), but the elder Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold) plans to buy up several blocks of the city to build a new factory, including the Vanderhof home. Of course, Grandpa won't sell, and the odds of Alice and Tony actually making it to the altar look slim, considering their two families will have to meet.

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Popular with Depression-era filmgoers, You Can't Take It With You delivers a message that director Frank Capra and his audience took to heart — when dealing with life's problems, big and small, it's best to always be yourself and do exactly what you want to do. Unfortunately, that heartwarming notion is also flat-headed bunk. At the beginning of the film, Grandpa meets office clerk Poppins (Donald Meek), who builds toys and hopes to make a living at it someday "when my ship comes in." Of course, Grandpa urges Poppins to quit his job and move in to the Vanderhof household, and the more practical-minded of us can only wonder what anybody living under that roof ever bothers to do to actually earn anything like, say, money (Grandpa's pat answer to that is that God looks after them as "lilies in the field"). A tax-collector arrives to tell Grandpa he hasn't paid taxes in years, to which Grandpa replies that he simply won't because he doesn't want to. And in the meantime, everybody else carries on with their music and writing and dancing and fireworks — it's not that anybody actually has any talent at these things as much as childlike fascination, and when compared to the dastardly Mrs. and Mrs. Kirby (a pair of dinner-theater villains at best), we are asked to believe that the best way to live our lives is not as adults, but little children. No, really — as Grandpa explains to Mr. Kirby, when he's faced with a problem he just gets out his harmonica and plays it until the problem goes away. Of course, Frank Capra has been accused of slathering sentiment on celluloid like frosting on a wedding cake, but in most instances (such as Meet John Doe, Mr. Deeds Goes Town, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), he at least supports common-sense ideals of honor, honesty, and decency. Here he veers into a muddled morass of useless value-statements, and the only saving grace of the film is the pairing of James Stewart and Jean Arthur, who are completely charming in the scenes they share.

Columbia TriStar's DVD release of You Can't Take it With You won't do any favors for the film's fans in any case — the transfer is solid enough, but the black-and-white source-print is not as clean as one would expect from a Columbia catalog release, at times looking no better than a public-domain VHS tape, while the monaural audio seems overly quiet. Capra completists can give it a spin, while others should be sure to catch the excellent Capra films already on DVD from Columbia. Keep-case.

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