81 Days With Oscar And Me

Every Academy Award-Winning Movie, Back to Back, Starting With the First

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You Can’t Take It With You

August 30th, 2009 · No Comments · 1938, Black and White, Charles Lane, Columbia Pictures, Comedy, Frank Capra, Jimmy Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, Original Screenplay, Robert Riskin, You Can't Take It With You

You Can't Take It With You You Can’t Take It With You is a screwball comedy revolving around a house full of quirky family members and hangers-on lead by Grandpa Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore), who dispenses aphorisms like candy machines dispense candy. Stuff like this: “You can’t take it with you, Mr. Kirby. So what good is it? As near as I can see the only thing you can take with you is the love of your friends.”

Mr. Kirby (Edward Arnold) is a high-powered banker trying to buy up land that has one hold out: The Vanderhof family. To muddy the waters, Kirby’s son, Tony Kirby (James Stewart) falls in love with a stenographer (Jean Arthur) who happens to be a member of the wacky Vanderhof family.

A stunt cooked up by Kirby, Sr., to force the Vanderhofs out of their home backfires and both families (the Kirbys and the Vanderhofs) are arrested and spend a few hours in jail. They get their time in court and each family has a chance, before the judge and the members of the audience, to reveal its rock-bottom character. It’s no surprise that the Kirbys may have more money but they’re very poor indeed when it comes to character.

There’s much in common between this movie and the 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life – and not just Jimmy Stewart (George Bailey) and Lionel Barrymore (Mr. Potter). But also Charles Lane (Real Estate Salesman) and director Capra. Most importantly, the common thread between the two movies is the theme of the goodness of human nature and the importance of character despite one’s economic position in life. You Can't Take It With YouIn this movie, the Kirbys are snooty and self-centered. The Vanderhofs are salt-of-the-earth people who aren’t as refined or as cultured, and barely have two nickels to rub together. But the Kirbys are humbled when their son’s fiancee breaks off their engagement following the aforementioned scene in the courtroom. There’s a scene in the courtroom when Grandpa Vanderhof needs $100 to pay the fine. He doesn’t have it. But the entire courtroom comes to his aid, a hat is passed, and everyone smiles as they fork over their money to help the man. Compare that scene to the tear-jerking denouement in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Later, the kind-hearted old grandfather decides to sell his house and the Kirby bankers get everything they wanted.

Or do they?

I love character actors. Always have. These mostly un-sung heroes enliven a movie, working as hard as the lead actors, but getting far less money and virtually no recognition.

Charles LaneI write that as a way to lead in to the name of perhaps my all-time favorite character actor:

Charles Lane.

Charles Lane lived to be 102. Throughout his 80-year career (he’s credited as appearing in or being associated with 350 movies!), Mr. Lane usually played tax attorneys, IRS agents, accountants, or other pinch-faced bureaucrats. Whenever he’d pop up in a movie I’d marvel at his ability to lift a scene. My eyes would go to him and I’d watch him do his thing.

True to character, he appears as an IRS agent in You Can’t Take It With You.

Charles LaneAnother famous character actor who appears in this movie is Dub Taylor (1907-1994), who’s face was so recognized that his web site is simply called That Guy. A documentary filmmaker is working on a movie about Mr. Taylor’s life. I’m glad. Character actors rarely get their due.

One last mention of a character actor:

Eddie AndersonEddie “Rochester” Anderson (1905-1977) who plays Donald in the movie. This is the same “Rochester” who appeared with Jack Benny from 1937 through 1964.

Here are the particulars about the actors in You Can’t Take It With You:

Lionel Barrymore (1878-1954), Jean Arthur (1900-1991), Jimmy Stewart (1908-1997), Edward Arnold (1890-1956), Charles Lane (1905-2007). Barrymore is fantastic in this movie. He sounded (and looked) much more Mr. Potter-like in this movie, compared to his role in Grand Hotel. I’ve always wondered why Lionel Barrymore appeared in wheelchairs or on crutches. The book The House of Barrymore by Margot Peters provides the answer:

Lionel was now in a wheelchair. How he got there is not entirely clear since Barrymores are possibly even less truthful than studio publicity departments. In 1951 Lionel told his autobiographical collaborator, Cameron Schipp, that one day in his studio dressing room he had leaned heavily against a metal drafting board, tripped, fallen, and found himself in the hospital…Lionel Barrymorebeing a Barrymore, he does not specify the hip injury or date the accident, but perhaps his hip was broken or dislocated sometime in 1936. Lionel then says that his hip had healed from the studio fall when, filming Saratoga in the summer of 1937, he tripped over a sound cable, fell, and again ended up in Good Samaritan in ropes and pulleys. He left the hospital in a wheelchair where, he says, he stayed.

Meanwhile, Selznick had definitely set him for the part of Dr. Meade in Gone With the Wind, impossible had Lionel been confined to a wheelchair at the time. Something was now seriously wrong, however, for he did not make Gone With the Wind, played all his scenes seated in Test Pilot (1938), and was again in the hospital when Frank Capra approached him about playing Grandpa Vanderhof in You Can’t Take It With You. “His body was a mess,” said Capra. “But not his verve.”

“I can play the part on crutches,” pleaded Lionel. “Just put a cast on my foot to alibi them. That’ll do it.”

Lionel did play Vanderhof on crutches and seated…

As Paul Harvey would say, “And now you know the rest of the story.”

This is a great film with a lot of heart.

Columbia Pictures
Mischa Auer
Ann Miller
Spring Byington
Samuel S. Hinds
Donald Meek
H.B. Warner
Screen Play
Based upon the Play by
Directed by
126 Minutes


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