You Can’t Take It with You (1938)

For most of my life, I only knew James Stewart for one role: George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. I learnt that he had many other iconic parts in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Vertigo, yet it amazed me to see how many Best Pictures he was cast in over the years.

James is the star in You Can’t Take It with You, the award winner from 1938, eight years before his turn as Mr. Bailey. Of course, anyone familiar with that story knows Mr. Potter, a ruthless rich guy who plans to monopolize the banks in Bedford Falls. Lionel Barrymore plays Mr. Potter, a guy I never liked in my life. So I was quite surprised that Barrymore plays the lead in this film, Grandpa Vanderhof, a guy whose granddaughter falls in love with Stewart’s rich character Tony Kirby. 

The central conflict in the story is Kirby’s wealthy parents refuse to have their only son fall in love with a secretary from a very unorthodox family. Alice’s (Jean Arthur) grandfather has many random people living in their house, including relatives who live in the basement and experiment with fireworks. Some talented musicians are also looking to catch a break and a toymaker who just needs to find his groove. 

When Tony’s parents agree to meet the family, everything erupts into chaos, and they end up in jail. It is only through conversations behind bars and during the subsequent trial, do the Kirby’s realize how rude they have been. Just when everything appears to be falling apart, Mr. Kirby (Edward Arnold) comes to the rescue, and the film reaches a happy ending. 

I got to be honest and say I was bored for most of the film. I couldn’t connect with all the colourful characters who lived in Vanderhof’s house and didn’t really enjoy the times Stewart was on the screen, trying to woo Miss Alice. There wasn’t a whole lot going for it, which left me wondering how this film would go on to win two Oscars. The only moment that made me laugh was the dinner scene when Tony and Alice go to this fancy restaurant, but Alice’s appearance is fawned upon by everyone, including Tony’s parents. He yells mouse, and everyone breaks into a panic to change the situation, allowing the young couple to stroll out unnoticed. The whole sequence was worth a laugh and ended up being the only part I enjoyed. 

You could see where the story was going after the significant arrest, which is that the Kirby’s needed to come down from their high horse and realize that the woman their son loves is a beautiful person. Her family may not be high class, but they have heart and character, something the Kirby’s seem to be missing. Their experiences with this crazy family changed their perspective of life, and they slowly begin to realize the errors of their ways. 4/10

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