Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Why You Can't Take It With You Sums Up Everything That Was Good About 1930s Hollywood While Also Managing To Be Distinctly Mediocre

I think the title hints what this post is about.

Alright. I'll fess up. I only put You Can't Take It With You at the top of my rental queue because it's one half of the next episode of the holy trifecta's Best Picture thingamawhatsit. (For what it's worth, Titanic is as bewitching as it ever was.) The inhumanly perfect pairing of Jean Arthur and Jimmy Stewart should have been enough to drive me to rob a DVD shop at gunpoint for a chance to watch it, and yet somehow, by perverse logic, the fact of it's being a winner of Oscar's top prize tainted it's appeal. (Like: if they like it, it can't be good enough. And yet I must see it because I am under their foolish thumb.)

Turns out, naturally, that I was quite correct. You Can't Take It With You, apart from having an irritatingly long and un-shortenable title, is basically the manic screwball comedies that I adore so much, but diluted with the infamous corn of Capra. If making films was a culinary art (and you know you wish it were), then here we have at the helm a chef who got noticed for his originality but has landed a boss who is terrified of bad press. 'Play it safe, lad,' he says, and so our precocious young cook looks down at his delicious concution and sadly pours in Capra's Creamed CornTM into his pot. Stir, and voila! You have crazy that Oscar can adore without having to laugh too much. God forbid people think the golden man's got a funny bone.

You can't contain the crazy. But you can put a sign that says 'Home Sweet Home' on it's front door and pet it gently. They may end up in a jail (like all the best and worst screwballs do), but this is a jail with 'ladies of the night' and scruffy homeless people, who certainly aren't there to be laughed at (you'll find no leopards here). You can mute the absurdity by throwing such disparate elements as dancer Ann Miller and wizened straight-face Lionel Barrymore into the same melting pot, but they doesn't mean they make a family. You can't present the ultimate kooky family as if it's normal and teach us moral lessons about the world at the same time: it's our world, or yours. Choose.

In the end, it's the cast that defines this film, in terms of how good they are at salvaging its worst moments, but also in how their disparate personaes represent the confusing mess that this film emerges as. Jimmy Stewart was to become the poster-boy for Capra's social concerns. Jean Arthur is the wiseacre of 40s social comedies. Lionel Barrymore is like a relic of the stage, gentle and loveable, sitting in the corner as a marker of prestige. Ann Miller is like a moth (a musical moth) that sneaked into a house and is fluttering to get out before someone squashes her for flying into their face. Spring Byington is the fluff that tickles Oscar's ear and makes him melt inside. Mischa Auer is the marker for xenophobic hilarity. And Edward Arnold... well, he's the cream of Capra's corn. You Can't Take It With You is that most frustrating of films: the film that isn't quite sure what it wants to be, and so tries to be them all. (Much like this highly schizophrenic post.) B-

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