When most people think of Frank Capra’s illustrious filmography, they tend to think of his top tier films, masterpieces that include “It Happened One Night,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Then you have the lower tier films that have mostly been forgotten about, films that, while they may have been popular back in their day, scarcely get a mention when people talk about the great director nowadays. One of these films from this part of his filmography is “You Can’t Take It With You,” based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, a film that was popular enough to snag Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director of 1938, but was it truly deserving of all the attention lavished on it by not only the Academy, but by critics as well?
The film tells the story of a banker, Anthony Kirby (Edward Arnold), who is trying to complete a big real estate deal in order to build factories. The problem is that there’s one holdout who won’t sell, an elderly man by the name of Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) and his eccentric family and friends, who spend their time playing instruments, making fireworks, and whatever other activities they want. As it happens, Mr. Vanderhof’s daughter, Alice (Jean Arthur), is in love with and is eager to marry Tony Kirby (James Stewart), the son of the banker who wants their house. However, she feels the need to gain the approval of his parents first, and so, she invites them to dinner one night, but unfortunately Tony purposely plans a mix-up so that they’ll be able to see how her family really is. Their arrival a day early makes for a very awkward start, but that’s just the beginning of a wild night of mistakes and misunderstandings.
“You Can’t Take It With You” is one of those films that I saw once years ago in my quest to see all of the Best Picture winners, but couldn’t remember much of anything about it. However, after revisiting it all these years later, it’s not all that hard to see why. The film is well-intentioned and has a decent story contained within, but unfortunately it’s buried under a heap of excess, and is ultimately undone by excessive length and shoddy pacing. The film runs a little over two hours, but there really wasn’t any reason that it needed to be that long, especially when there were several scenes that served little to no purpose (Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur dancing in the park with kids being its low point).
It’s really a shame because there’s a great story hidden in here with lots of interesting twists and turns, coupled with a wonderful ensemble that includes Arthur, Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold, Spring Byington, and Donald Meek. What it really needed was a another trip through the editing room to help make it tighter and allow the fun and amusing story to shine through, instead of allowing it to bob up and down with periods of interest and periods of superfluousness (how many times did they need to show us that this family is very eccentric?).
That’s not to say that “You Can’t Take It With You” is a bad film, just that it needed a little work to bring more focus to the story. That being said, there were easily better candidates for Best Picture of 1938, including great films like “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and Jean Renoir’s masterpiece “Grand Illusion.” I guess they simply wanted to go with something a little lighter that year, something that could give them a few laughs. It’s certainly not the only Best Picture winner to be mostly forgotten, nor to be overshadowed by its fellow nominees, but coming from the amazing Frank Capra, and featuring an ensemble this incredible, you can’t help but be disappointed at the result.
“You Can’t Take It With You” comes to Blu-ray in a 1.37:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of mostly decent quality. As specified in the included essay about the film’s restoration, this was a very difficult project to restore due to the degraded nature of the negatives available. However, while the image is a little grainy, there has been some noticeable improvement, particularly when it comes to the lighting and colors. The DTS-HD Master Audio is also noticeably clearer, giving you the dialogue and Dmitri Tiomkin’s score in outstanding quality. Overall, the film has been given the best treatment that it can possibly get from the materials available, and while it may not be perfect, it’s still an improvement over previous copies of the film.
Commentary by Frank Capra Jr. and Author Cathrine Kellison: A great commentary in which Capra and Kellison discuss multiple aspects of the film, including the cast and crew.
Frank Capra Jr. Remembers… You Can’t Take It With You (26 Minutes): An excellent featurette in which primarily Capra discusses the history of the film, which includes an interesting story about the events leading up to his father starting work on it.
Special Booklet with Essays: A booklet that’s built right into the movie’s case that contains fascinating essays about the making of the film and its restoration.
Frank Capra’s “You Can’t Take It With You” features an incredible cast and an amusing story, but unfortunately they are ultimately let down by excessive length and shoddy pacing. With a little editing, this could have ranked right up there with Capra’s masterpieces, but with so much superfluous material, its potential merely gets buried in a film that has not aged well and has been mostly forgotten, leaving it as a mere footnote in the filmography of its great director.
Now available on Special Edition Blu-ray.
Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.