Frank Capra’s YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938), New On Digibook Blu

Columbia released You Can’t Take It With You on Dec 8 as the second entry in their Capra Collection series of handsome digibook Blu-ray releases.

Discussing Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You in 2015 is a bit of a mental gymnastic, in the sense that it needs to be approached backward. These days the first collaboration between Capra and James Stewart is less known than superior follow-ups Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and It’s A Wonderful Life, but it’s no slouch — it does, after all, have the distinction of winning Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director.

By the time he made You Can’t Take It With You, Frank Capra was already one of the top filmmakers in Hollywood with a pair of those Best Director Oscars already under his belt. For James Stewart though, it was a breakthrough performance. It was also his first on-screen pairing with Jean Arthur; they would again work under Capra in follow-up Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

Adapted from a hit stage play, the story follows the comical tribulations of star-crossed lovers Tony and Alice — he the scion of a powerful banking empire, and she his working-class stenographer. As their conversation turns to marriage, and fearing that Tony’s snobby upper crust parents will not approve, Alice insists on a meeting of the families which is unfortunately met with disastrous consequences.

Alice’s grandfather Martin (Lionel Barrymore) is the patriarch of their clan, a warm-hearted eccentric who has raised the family according to his fashion. Alice’s parents and siblings are each strange and kooky, indulging their personal passions (and whims) and trusting in providence rather than living out the typical 9-to-5 rat race, and the house teems with activity of not only the family but friends who more or less make their home there (it’s sort of a halfway house for dreamers). Martin himself walked away from his own high-profile job 35 years ago, determined to live a life of joy rather than drudgery.

Into this home come Tony’s stuffy Wall Street parents Anthony Sr. and Meriam, ideologically the opposite of Alice’s family’s Bohemian existence. Here the film reaches a tumultuous fever pitch as each of Alice’s relatives and friends inadvertently take turns embarrassing her with their boorish behavior.

And honestly, it’s a bit too much. Like a few other scenes that pepper the film, it’s intended to be funny but relies on an uncomfortable and cacophonous barrage of noise and anarchy as a source of laughs. I don’t care at all for this sort of intentionally awkward and obnoxious comedy (which for comparative purposes is also exemplified in Capra’s Arsenic And Old Lace, a film many love that drives me crazy).

Thankfully these scenes don’t set the tone for the entire film, which I ultimately liked (but didn’t love). A secondary conflict develops around an astounding coincidence — Tony’s father, an investment banker, has been working on a shady business deal to buy up an entire block to build a munitions factory. One sole holdout has declined to sell his house, and as it turns out that house is the very one where Alice’s family resides, and which her grandfather owns.

The film ultimately comes down to dueling worldviews — pursuit of wealth, or of happiness. Grandpa Martin opts for the latter, materializing the film’s title into a pointed dialogue: You can’t take it with you. Lionel Barrymore is pretty delightful as the family patriarch. Modern audiences are more likely to be familiar with his role as the cranky, perpetually scowling villain Mr. Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life, making his lovable affability something of a startling revelation, even though this film technically came first.

The film succumbs at times to what I feel is misplaced anarchic screwball antics, but the balance of the story is genuinely affecting with memorable characters, an interesting conflict of ideals, and good chemistry between James Stewart and Jean Arthur. But like most Capra films, my favorite aspects are the positive message at the heart of things and a very affecting ending.

The Package

You Can’t Take It With You arrives as the second entry in Columbia’s Capra Collection series which began with Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Visually, its design features a parallel black & white and gold aesthetic to that of the Mr. Smith disc, including the “Capra Collection” notation that carries the promise that more of the director’s Columbia titles will be making their way to Blu-ray.

The Digibook features a Foreword by Frank Capra, a meaty historical essay on the film’s making by Jeremy Arnold, star & director profiles, and, most interestingly to me, Grover Crisp’s account of the film’s best-effort restoration process that involved piecing together different film sources for the best possible restoration output.

Whereas the Mr. Smith disc was impressively loaded with bonus featurettes, this new one isn’t nearly as stacked, serving up a 25-minute featurette, trailer, and audio commentary.

Special Features and Extras

Frank Capra Jr. Remembers… You Can’t Take It With You (25:42)
 Frank Jr. reminisces about the film and his father’s work, most notably in discussing the elder Capra’s disputes with Columbia Pictures. This is a continuance of the “Frank Capra Jr. Remembers” series of featurettes that appeared on the earlier Mr. Smith disc.

Original Theatrical Trailer (1:01)

Commentary by Frank Capra Jr. and author Catherine Kellison

A/V Out.

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