You Can't Take It With You (Blu-ray Review)28 Dec, 2015 By: Mike Clark
Stars Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart, Edward Arnold.
Working with longtime screenwriter Robert Riskin in revamping the famed source play’s third act, an in-his-prime Frank Capra fashioned a little something of his own out of the George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart Pulitzer winner — auteurism, in fact, that won the director his third Oscar in five years from 1934-38, a feat never replicated and not likely to be.
For years, I regarded Take It as one of the weaker best picture winners, and maybe it is, but with this 4K restoration of iffy but best-existing printing materials, I have to say that I enjoyed it more than ever before and by a pretty fair margin (though I’m a Holiday-The Lady Vanishes kind of guy for ’38 because Bringing Up Baby wears me out and not in a good way). Maybe it’s with advanced age that I now see it in the light Capra intended: as a story not of young lovers (James Stewart and Jean Arthur) but one of older men (Lionel Barrymore and Edward Arnold). Even in 1938, the horizontal actor billing read Arthur-Barrymore-Stewart-Arnold — all under the title. Alone above the title, and for the first time, was Capra’s name; his best-selling autobiography wasn’t called The Name Above the Title for nothing.
I don’t know if the play is still performed to death, but in my youth and adolescence you couldn’t escape it (they did it at my high school when I was busy listening to The Troggs). A product of the Depression, it deals with a moneybags magnate who needs one parcel of land to ice a deal that’ll lead to a merger — and the grandfather to a clan of lovable loonies who (in later Wild River style) refuses to sell. Naturally, then, the magnate’s son (groomed to be a company VP) falls for his secretary, who turns out to be the granddaughter of you-know-who. The four roles are filled by the top-billed quartet, and it doesn’t take much film scholarship to figure out how the roles are allocated, especially when you remember that Arnold has still never been equaled when comes to playing corporate string-pullers.
The movie’s visual centerpiece is the superb set of the Barrymore family’s living room, which is as comically cluttered as the supporting cast. To name a few of the latter, there are: Oscar-nominated Spring Byington (who thinks you can go deep-sea fishing in a lake); a very young Ann Miller (always dancing on cue in the living room); Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (who, when jailed along with most of the cast, hilariously exclaims, “Home Again!”); Dub Taylor (who got his first screen role here because he could play the xylophone — this nearly 30 years before memorably playing the hayseed who rats out Beatty and Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde); and a basement array of covert fireworks manufacturers. By this time in his career, Barrymore was already plagued with the arthritis that would soon put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life and screen career. Here, thanks to some scripting that alludes to his character’s recent accident, he maneuvers himself on crutches — and pretty gracefully, though it’s disheartening to watch this when you realize what the pain must have been.
The great Grover Crisp at Sony didn’t have the benefit of existing sturdy printing elements that abetted Sony’s previous work on other Capra milestones, so this is a release that has to be appreciated for improving markedly on Take It predecessors — as opposed to one that will curl your socks. The overall production is classy all the way: digibook with glossy paper and still reproductions; a historical-essay overview plus Crisp’s primer on the restoration challenges; and a vintage commentary by Frank Capra Jr. and Cathrine Kellison, whose crowded resumé included a popular stint as an NYU instructor in media studies (she sounds like more fun on the audio track than a lot of NYU faculty I can remember). As with watching Barrymore and his arthritis, it’s kind of a wistful listening to the last because both Capra Jr. (who also offers a 25-minute on-camera Take It remembrance) and Kellison have died since it was done. As I noticed last year when listening to the extras on Sony’s release of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Capra Jr. had few peers when it came to spinning an anecdote, and his frequent laughter was infectious.