Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: You Can’t Take It With You (dir by Frank Capra)


(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1938 best picture winner, You Can’t Take It With You!)

“You can’t take it with you.”

If there’s any one belief that defines the worldview of Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore), it’s this.  It doesn’t matter how much money you make in your life.  It doesn’t matter how successful you are at business or anything else.  The fact of the matter is that, when your time is up, you won’t be able to take any of that stuff with you.  Instead, Grandpa Vanderhof (as he’s called by his large family) believes that the most important thing to do during your lifetime is to make friends and pursue what you’re truly interested in.

Vanderhof has another belief, one that particularly appealed to be me.  He has never paid income tax.  He doesn’t see the point of giving money to the government when he doesn’t feel that they’ll make good use of it.  When an outraged IRS agent (Charles Lane) stops by Vanderhof’s sprawling house and demands that Vanderhof pay his taxes, Vanderhof refuses.  When the IRS man argues that the income tax is necessary to pay for the Presidency, the Congress, and the Supreme Court, Vanderhof offers to give him five dollars.  “Hell yeah!” I shouted at the TV.  With an attitude like that, Vanderhof should have moved down here to Texas.  We would have elected him governor.

Grandpa Vanderhof is the head of a large and cheerfully eccentric family, all of whom live together under the same roof.  Penny (Spring Byington) writes novels because, years ago, a typewriter was accidentally delivered to the house.  Her husband, Paul (Samuel S. Hinds), has a basement full of fireworks.  Essie (Ann Miller) loves to dance and spends almost the entire movie twirling from room to room.  Her husband, Ed (Dub Taylor), is a xylophone player.

Of course, it’s not just family living in the Vanderhof House.  There’s also Potap Kolenkhov (Mischa Auer), a Russian who is “teaching” Essie how to dance.  There’s Rheba the maid (Lillian Yarbo) and Donald (Eddie Anderson) the handyman.  Actually, the house appears to be open to just about anyone who wants to stay.

And then there’s Penny’s daughter, Alice (Jean Arthur).  Alice is the most “normal” member of the family.  She has just become engaged to Tony Kirby (James Stewart) and she is still trying to figure out how to introduce Tony’s stuffy parents (Edward Arnold and Mary Forbes) to her eccentric family.  What she and Tony don’t know is that Mr. Kirby is currently trying to buy up all the houses that are near a competitor’s factory.  Only one homeowner has refused to sell.  The name of that homeowner?  Martin “Grandpa” Vanderhof.

It all leads, of course, to one chaotic dinner party, one lively night in jail, and a huge fireworks display.  It also leads to true love, which is nice.  Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur are even more adorable here than they were in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

Based on a Pulitzer-winning play by George S. Kaufman, You Can’t Take It With You was the second comedy to win the Oscar for Best Picture.  The first comedy to win was 1934’s It Happened One Night.  It’s probably not coincidence that both of these films were directed by Frank Capra.

Seen today, You Can’t Take It With You seems a bit slight for an Oscar winner.  Grandpa Vanerhof is a lovable eccentric.  Tony’s father is a stuffy businessman.  Hmmm … I wonder whose philosophy is going to be victorious at the end of the movie?  Still, predictability aside, it’s a delightfully enjoyable film.  While it never quite escape its stage origins, it features wonderful performances from all the usual members of the Capra stock company.  James Stewart and Jean Arthur are a charming couple while Lionel Barrymore gives a performance that is so warmly likable that it’s hard to imagine that, just 9 years later, he would be so perfectly cast as the heartless Mr. Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life.  Of course, my favorite member of the member was Essie, mostly because I also like to dance from room to room.  While it’s hard to justify awarding it Best Picture over The Adventures of Robin Hood and Grand Illusion, You Can’t Take It With You is still a wonderfully fun movie.

It’ll make you smile and laugh.  Who can’t appreciate that?

 

Lisa Watches An Oscar Nominee: Ruggles of Red Gap (dir by Leo McCarey)


Ruggles_of_red_gap

After watching Barry Lyndon, I decided to continue to explore my DVR by watching another film that was shown as a part of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar.

First released way back in 1935, Ruggles of Red Gap was nominated for best picture but it lost to Mutiny of the Bounty.  Interestingly enough, both Ruggles and Bounty featured the great Charles Laughton.  In Bounty, Laughton played a tyrannical villain, Capt. Bligh.  In Ruggles, however, Laughton is the film’s hero, a gentle and comedic butler named Marmaduke Ruggles who, after having his contract gambled away in a poker game, finds himself living in the frontier town of Red Gap, Washington.

It’s also interesting to note that Ruggles of Red Gap is one of the few best picture nominees to receive absolutely no other nominations.  To a certain extent, it’s understandable.  Ruggles of Red Gap was made at a time when the Academy had less categories but still nominated ten films for best picture.  As a film, Ruggles mostly serves as a showcase for Charles Laughton but, that year, he received his best actor nomination for his work in Mutiny.  (At that time, there were no supporting categories.  Had there been, it’s likely that Laughton could have received a lead actor nomination for Ruggles and a supporting nomination for Bounty.)  The next time that someone complains that Selma only received two nominations, you remind them that’s one more than Ruggles of Red Gap received.

As for the film itself … well, for a modern audience, the film’s deliberate pace takes some getting used to.  The film’s best moments occur at the start.  Ruggles wakes up one morning to discover that his boss (Roland Young) lost him in a poker game.  Ruggles spends the day meeting and attempting to get used to his new employer, a nouveau riche cowboy named Egbert Floud (Charlie Ruggles).  The joke here, of course, is that Ruggles is stereotypically reserved and British while Egbert is loud, brash, and American.  Ruggles lives his life by the rules of the class system.  Egbert comes from a world where there is no class and everyone is equal.  Ruggles refuses to call Egbert by his first name.  Egbert gets Ruggles drunk.  The scenes of Egbert and Ruggles in Europe are a lot of fun, largely because the two actors were obviously having a lot of fun playing off each other and Laughton clearly relished getting to play comedy as opposed to villainy.

The second half of the film features Ruggles settling into life in Red Gap, Washington.  The citizens of Red Gap are, of course, all honest and hard-working folks who don’t have the slightest hint of pretension.  (Red Gap may have been in Washington but it was obviously nowhere close to Seattle.)  They welcome Ruggles into the community but they also mistake him for being a colonel and soon, everyone is under the impression that Ruggles himself is a war hero.  It’s an odd subplot, one that doesn’t seem to really be necessary to make the film’s point.

And that point, by the way, is that America is a land where everyone is equal and where butlers have the same rights as their employers.  Ruggles goes from being somewhat horrified by his new surrounding to being a proud American, an entrepreneur who is now capable of being his own man.  And it may sound corny and I’m sure all of my cynical friends are rolling their eyes but you know what?  Charles Laughton pulled it off.  As uneven as the film may sometimes be, Laughton’s sincere performance holds it all together.  He’s the main reason to watch Ruggles of Red Gap.

How proud of an American does Ruggles become?  He’s enough of an American that he can even recite the Gettysburg address!  Watch below!