Thursday, May 08, 2008


YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938, USA, Frank Capra, Robert Riskin screenplay from Kaufman & Hart stage play)
YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1984, USA, Kirk Browning & Ellis Rabb)

"The die is cast. I'm a lily."
"Have some popcorn."

In May and June of 1938, exactly seventy years ago, Frank Capra was on a Hollywood soundstage filming "You Can't Take It With You." The Kaufman and Hart comedy – by the turn of the millenium, the most-performed play in North America – was fresh from Broadway. Just like Capra's young romantic lead, Jimmy Stewart, who'd been in California only long enough to hook up with his buddy Henry Fonda, pick up small roles in a handful of studio pictures, and carry on a brief fling with Ginger Rogers (who may or may not have been a good dancer: far be it from me to weigh in on that particular argument).

Frank Capra saw in his unknown "aw shucks" leading man the quintessential movie star, and in this wonderfully human comedy something more divine than just a roomful of quirky characters. He wanted to make a film that would "dramatize Love Thy Neighbor in living drama. What the world's churches were preaching to apathetic congregations, my universal language of film might say more entertainingly to audiences."

Sounds like a lot of weight to put on a charming little comedy about nonconformity. But you know, the longer I spend around this surprisingly substantial story, the more I come to think he might be right. Grandpa Vanderhof's amiable contempt for the things of this world – like paying taxes that inevitably seem to end up bankrolling useless wars – smacks of the radical subversiveness of Jesus' gospel, an abandonment to divine providence that's more than just a little counter-cultural. In Depression-era America, or in rich-still-getting-richer, poor-still-getting-poorer British Columbia three quarters of a century later.

Disappointingly, Capra also saw here something less divine than a roomful of quirky characters: he remakes this play about unconventionality into something decidely more conventional, shifting the love story centre-stage and backgrounding the richly detailed communalism that gives context not only for the romance but for the unabashed individualism of its proto-hippy free spirits. Moss and Hart's gently anarchic celebration of good old Yankee eccentricity frames the virtues of idiosyncracy in community: the Vanderhof-Sycamore clan may be self-directed, but never self-serving or self-sufficient.

The original play is available on video, with Jason Robards taped in performance during a mid-eighties Broadway run. Filmed stage productions are tricky: performances large enough to fill a thousand-seat house can read false on screen, and outsize comic characterizations in particular go over the top, but still it's grand to see the story in all its good-natured anarchy – political as well as personal. (What this play need is human-scaled performances in the intimacy of a living room sized theatre. Hmm...)

I do love the Capra film treatment for one scene, though. Mr Poppins is a closet inventor who tallies numbers at Mr Kirby's bank – until the day Grandpa Vanderhof lures him away, a Depression-era Matthew forsaking the counting-house for a bagful of popcorn and a sudden vision of freedom;
"How'd you like to come over to our house and work on your gadgets? Everybody over to our place does just what he wants to do."
"But how would I live?"
"Same way we do."
"But who takes care of you?"
"The same one that takes care of the lilies, Mr Poppins. Except that we toil a little, spin a little, have a barrel of fun. If you want to, come on over and become a lily too."
"A lily? Me, a lily of the field?"


The Capra film version is available at Videomatica


Michael said...

Great write up on one of my favorite movies Ron. What's up with you and Capra lately?

Ron Reed said...

I decided a year and a half ago that I wanted to rewrite my play YOU STILL CAN'T, which is essentially a sequel to YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU. YSC has had five productions but, as fun as it is, the thing's still a mess. So, to immerse myself again (and even more fully) in the world of the original, I figured the best thing to do would be to direct the original, then follow it up a year later by directing a completely new revision of my sequel. So I slated the Kaufman & Hart for production in spring 2008, and the follow-up for spring 2009 (with an extensive development process in between involving the cast).

As the selection process continued for our 2007-2008 season, we ended up with DRIVING MISS DAISY and A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS confirmed, and it dawned on me that we were ending up with plays which had also been films. So we dubbed the season "PT Goes To The Movies," and when it came time to choose a Christmas show which had also been a film, and had some sort of connection with the company's mandate, we ended up with a one-man version of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE.

Of course all those films will go in my book, having gotten to know them well in the course of seeing them staged this season. And so they wind up, sooner or later, on the blog!


PS Actually, I can't remember whether YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU or IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE came first in the planning process, and led almost inevitably to the selection of the other. Ah, memory.

Jared said...

I'd never seen this until recently when I watched it as part of my quest to see all of the Oscar best picture winners. I had done a read-through of the play a few years ago with some friends and enjoyed it very much.

It was long enough ago that I don't remember a lot of details, but the movie seemed to add a lot of material . . . in any case, it felt much too long to me. It felt a bit preachy, but then, Capra often does, and I still thought it had many charming moments. Anyway, I enjoyed reading your thoughts.