If my family has a favorite movie, this would have to be it. Somehow this story of a spirited and eccentric family doing what they wanted always struck a chord with us.
It was a hit play on Broadway, opening December 14, 1936, written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. The play mirrors some of the concerns of Broadway (and much of the country) at that time, like social conscience and left politics. The most important strike in American history, the UAW’s action against the big automakers, involving plant sit-ins, took place at about the same time. The first big sit-in at GM (at Fisher Body Plant #1 in Flint) began December 30, 1936. On Broadway, by June 1937, Orson Welles and the Federal Theatre Project opened (and closed, due to WPA pressure) The Cradle Will Rock, Marc Blitzstein’s musical about unionization. But the play of You Can’t Take It With You was still running.
Columbia bought the Kaufman and Hart property for the astronomical price of $200,000, after Harry Cohn, the studio head, told Sam Harris, the Broadway producer of the play, that he wouldn’t pay that sum for the Second Coming. The purchase was designed to sweeten Capra’s return to the studio. Capra had spent a year off, in lawsuits against Cohn, and the studio itself. They had put his name on a film he hadn’t made and released it in England. Capra saw ads for it when he was vacationing there.
Robert Riskin, Capra’s favorite screenwriter, wrote the screenplay. The movie differs somewhat from the play – it adds the real estate conflict between the Kirbys and the Vanderhofs to put the focus on the moral conflict between the banker, Mr. Kirby, and Grandpa Vanderhof, rather than the love story.
The movie began production in April 1938 and finished the following June. It was released at the end of September. It won an Oscar for best picture and won Capra an Oscar for best director, and Spring Byington, who plays the mother, was nominated for best supporting actress.
Lionel Barrymore, who played Grandpa, was crippled by arthritis. In the film the script explains the crutches as due to a temporary injury, but Barrymore worked through constant pain in this film and the ones he made afterwards. Edward Arnold, who plays Kirby, had a long career playing moguls, millionaires, and political bosses. In this film his introspection as he clinches the most important deal of his life is a great moment to watch. And what can I say about the great Mischa Auer? His role here, as the émigré White Russian dance teacher, Mr. Kolenkhov, is one of his best. And of course, Jean Arthur and Jimmy Stewart play the young lovers with great style.
Anyway, I hope you will be swept up by this picture’s charm, as my family has been.