The Oscar Project 1938: You Can’t Take it With You

1938 - You Can't Take It with You - posterI’ve seen You Can’t Take it With You both on the stage and the screen. The stage version actually featured my brother-in-law Donavan as Donald, a volunteer handyman for the Sycamores. It’s a quirky original that influenced many a film over the years, quite a few by Wes Anderson.

What makes this film pop is the script written by Robert Riskin, the same bright scribe who won an Oscar four years earlier for the Capra masterpiece It Happened One Night. It’s hard-working; never relying on contrived plot twists and turns to create mayhem. Everything is logical even when it’s absurd.

And it’s not just a reproduction of the stage play. Riskin put in some work to adapt it for film.

If you simplified the plot of You Can’t Take It with You it would be “man from rich family of elitists and woman from good-natured but peculiar family fall in love.” But it really is much more than that.

The story is the embodiment of “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” And although in the third act the story does get a little heavy-handed with its message it doesn’t stray from the characters.

Capra does something magical with this film, translating the play to the screen without it feeling overly like a play. It’s mostly because Riskin wisely stayed away from the farcical nature of the play, understanding what this story is all about: the characters.

They’re interesting, weird, well-written and original but what may have been Riskin’s greatest stroke  of genius was creating a new character for the film that wasn’t in the original play: Mr. Poppins.

Mr. Poppins isn’t a major character and most of his screen time is during a 5-minute scene at the very start of the film. But he acts as the audience, being pulled suddenly and unexpectedly into this crazy world of the Vanderhof-Sycamore-Carmichael clan.

This film marked the start of a brief but significant collaboration. It was the first of three films Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra would make together. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life and You Can’t Take it With You were all up for best picture and all have all become American classics.

Stewart was only 29 years old when he made this film and he’s charming as all get-out. He’d only been making films for about four years but already had more than a dozen under his belt. He would notch five best actor nods (1 win) over the next 20 years and in 1985 (almost 50 years after this film) he’d receive a lifetime achievement award from the Academy. You Can’t Take it With You was the birth of a Hollywood icon.

But another icon’s influence was made evident in this film: Walt Disney. Just six years after his first Oscar, he’s already showing up as a pop cultural reference in this film. Not only is he mentioned but one of Mr. Sycamore’s inventions plays the tune of “Whistle While You Work” from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs which had only come out the year before*.

At these 11th Annual Academy Awards You Can’t Take it With You won best picture and director. It received a total of 7 nominations (the most that year) including screenplay and supporting actress for Spring Byington who played Penny Sycamore.

Frank Capra won his record third best director award, the first to accomplish this feat. This would be the final directing Oscar of his career although he would be nominated twice more. He also won for best documentary in 1943 for Prelude to War. However, and not to diminish that honor, the Academy nominated 25 documentaries that year and named four winners. So…

For the next article I’ll watch and review the best picture winner for 1939. I’ll need to Google it. Not sure I’ve heard of it. But in addition to writing about whatever tiny, forgotten art-house film took home the Oscar I’ll also be ranking the best picture winners of the decade. To be fair I’ll also include the 1928 and 1929 films.

*Walt Disney received an honorary Oscar that year “for creating Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, recognized as a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field for the motion picture cartoon.” He was presented one Oscar and seven miniature Oscars on a stepped base.

DVD available from Netflix.

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