Frank Capra. In my mind the number one person associated with comedy is this fantastic director. Four years after ‘It Happened One Night’ swept the Oscars, the almost as good ‘You Can’t Take It With You’ earned Capra another best picture award and a third best director award (he also won for ‘Mr Deeds Goes to Town’).
‘You Can’t Take it with You’ is a wonderfully simple tale. Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) is a stenographer, in love with her boss Tony Kirby (James Stewart) who is the son of the company owner. Alice lives with her eccentric family who clash with Tony’s family, not only due to the cultural differences but also because Tony’s father wants to buy the family home for his latest business venture.
This is what Capra specialises in: comedy with a heart. He takes what could be clichéd love story about two families clashing and makes it a winner from every angle. The script is wonderfully peppered with glorious lines, a personal favourite is when the grandfather (Lionel Barrymore) explains why he does not pay income tax, and moves the story along at a wild pace.
The cast is, of course, excellent. What works so well is how Jean Arthur and James Stewart play their parts in such a straight manner, whilst there is chaos all around. It is a perfect example of how you do not need to overact to be funny (some unmentionable modern comic actors take note), the smallest glance and motion from these characters is hysterical and utterly charming. James Stewart truly is a wonderful actor: from comedy (‘The Philadelphia Story’) to westerns (‘The Man who Shot Liberty Vallance’) and thrillers (‘Vertigo’) he is one of the best actors ever on film.
The supporting cast have more obvious fun in their comic roles. The Sycamore family are all a little eccentric in their own way and they make the most out of their screen time. This is where Capra’s excellent direction comes in: they do not, at all, ever, act on top of each other, and the effect is remarkable. It enables the film to move at a furious pace without descending into incomprehensible mayhem. The Kirby family are comically snobbish but without ever becoming ridiculous caricatures.
Like all Capra films, this film just makes the viewer feel delightfully warm inside. Maybe it’s not to the average modern viewers taste: it’s very much of its time, but I defy anyone not to watch this film with an open mind and be taken in by this charming love story.