There is nothing in Frank Capra’s work that stands out to me as much as his ability to craft stories and characters that are both poignant and socially relevant, and yet also maintain a gentle spirit and tone.
To do that and also not come across as some lightweight of a filmmaker, well, that’s an accomplishment in and of itself. There’s a difference, though, between projecting warmth and gentleness and being fluffy and hollow. Many of Capra’s films may leave you feeling warm and fuzzy, but he’s at least got something to say.
What he has to say may seem simplistic at times, but it’s said with such sincerity, earnestness and honesty that it doesn’t matter. This is perhaps most evident in his most well-known films, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “It’s A Wonderful Life,” but it’s also front and center in his Oscar winning feature, “You Can’t Take It With You.” (The film won Best Picture and Best Director, one of three times Capra would win the latter award.)
Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name, the film tells the story of a wealthy business magnate (intent on forming the world’s largest monopoly). Mr. Kirby (Edward Arnold) has his sights set on making an obscene fortune with a new factory that would manufacture weapons. The only thing standing in his way, though, is Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore). You see, in order for Kirby to build his factory, he needs 12 square blocks of land, and everyone in the area has sold him their property, save for Grandpa Vanderhof and his veritable commune of free-spirited family members and friends.
Complicating matters is Kirby’s son, Tony (Jimmy Stewart), who wants to marry Vanderhof’s granddaughter, Alice (Jean Arthur). Kirby, and his wife, are appalled at their son’s desire to wed “beneath him” and Alice is likewise infuriated at the Kirbys’ snobbery. Everything eventually comes to a head when the two families meet for dinner one night and nothing goes as expected.
The message here is pretty simple. The title says it all, really. Capra is very straightforward and unpretentious in how he presents these characters, which gives the film a sweetness that’s hard not to love. No easy task in a story like this, especially when most of these characters could seem overly broad or (in the case of Vanderhof’s friends and family) quirky for the sake of quirky. But it never feels forced or overbearing and instead comes off as colorful and endearing.
It’s a light film, all things considered, but that’s OK. Its heart is firmly in the right place and that counts for a lot.
This nearly wraps up my series on Frank Capra. Next week, I’ll finish it with a review of “Why We Fight.” Following that, I’ll begin a series looking at some of the films of Martin Scorsese, including “Who’s That Knocking At My Door,” “Mean Streets,” “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” “The King of Comedy,” “The Color of Money” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.”
Every week, Entertainment Editor Stewart Smith brings a new entry in “Catching Up On…” an ongoing series attempting to fill in the gaps of his cinematic education.