- L Alan Reitano
AND THE WINNER IS... YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU
~ OR CAN YOU?
The 11th film to win Best Picture is You Can’t Take It With You, from 1938. The film was produced & directed by Frank Capra for Columbia Pictures. It’s based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name, by George S. Kaufmann and Moss Hart. The screenplay was adapted by Robert Riskin. It would be his last collaboration with Capra – as Riskin wanted to venture out on his own. The Broadway play had 19 cast members. Capra used 153 characters in the film.
The budget for You Can’t Take It With You,”was $1.64 million. The domestic Box Office did - $2.13 million and international rentals brought in another $5.29 million.
The film was shot in 56 days, going four days - and $65,000 over budget.
The cinematographer was Joseph Walker, who was a true innovator of camera gear. Walker had invented the double exposure, and several zoom lenses. He was also an expert at multiple camera shooting. Because of the way Capra directed actors, it was common for his crew to shoot with multiple cameras at once. Walker was nominated for Best Cinematographer four times, but never won. He did however receive the Academy’s first Gordon E. Sawyer Award for technical contributions to the industry.
Dimitri Tiomkin composed the score. Tiomkin was born in Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution. Of Jewish descent, Tiomkin is best known for his western scores including A Day In The Sun, High Noon, and Red River. He worked with Capra many times. In addition to You Can’t Take It With You, he scored, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Lost Horizon, Meet John Doe, and It’s A Wonderful Life. Tiomkin was nominated for 22 Oscars® and won four. Three for Best Score – The Old Man And The Sea, High Noon, and The High And The Mighty. The fourth Oscar® was for Best Song – The Ballad Of High Noon.
CAPRA & COHN
You Can’t Take It With You, is the first Capra movie with his name above the title, but how that all unfolded is every bit as screwball as the Sycamore household in the film
It all started when Capra – while in New York for the opening of Lost Horizon - wandered into the theater to catch the first act of the play. Film producers would routinely fly to Broadway looking for new material. They’d catch one act of three different plays in one night. If they saw anything that stuck out – they’d come back the next night and catch the whole show. When Capra walked into You Can’t Take It With You – he couldn’t leave. He wanted this play to be his next movie.
But, Broadway producer Sam Harris, wanted $200,000 for the rights. When Capra told the powers that be at Columbia he wanted the rights – studio head Harry Cohn he replied – “Tell that son of a bitch I wouldn’t pay that for the second coming.”
And... that was that - or so Cohn thought. Cohn and Capra had always had a fractious relationship. Capra – who had been allowed to make whatever he wanted as long as he kept making money, referred to the studio boss as “His crudeness.”
Cohn – for his part - was embarrassed by Capra’s success. People had started saying Capra was Columbia – and had more industry clout than Cohn. So some of what happened next, may have been posturing by Harry Cohn - a play for power. The fight over the rights for You Can't Take It With You, though was about to become irrelevant - because Capra went to England. When he and his wife arrived, they were met by the London staff from Columbia’s office there. The Brits were all very apologetic about the poor U.K. performance of his last film.
Capra didn’t understand. Lost Horizon, had done okay. "Not that one –" the Columbia men replied – "the cooking one."
Capra insisted he had no idea what they were going on about. He’d never made a film about cooking. The London Columbia men kept saying – you know - The film If You Could Only Cook.
Instead of heading to the hotel, the baffled Capra went straight to Columbia’s London office. Sure enough, there were promotional materials for a film called If You Could Only Cook. Across all the posters was pasted a banner that read – production supervised by Frank Capra.
Capra asked for a couple of prints of the film, but insisted he’d had nothing to do with it.
Upon returning to Hollywood, he marched into Harry Cohn’s office demanding to know – “What the hell this film was all about?”
Cohn shuffled and obfuscated then sheepishly admitted that the studio got better international terms if Capra’s name was on the film.
Capra demanded it be stopped. It was dishonest.
Instead of just admitting a mistake and apologizing, Cohn’s reply – in typical movie mogul fashion was – “Frank, tell you what… I’ll split whatever we make off this thing with you.”
If Capra thought the deal was dishonest before – he was certain now. So he declined. In fact, he informed Cohn, that by using his name with out his knowledge - Columbia had breached his contract. He was done.
Harry Cohn, hit the roof, insisting the director still owed him two more pictures.
Capra didn’t care and walked out. He called around to all the other studios – who said they’d love to have him direct for them – but he was still under contract to Cohn – so sorry – no deal. The Hollywood studio ranks had closed their doors to Frank Capra.
With no other options on the table - Capra sued for breach, but this took time – time in which Capra wasn’t working. According to his son Frank Capra Jr. this made the director grumpy, and near impossible to be around.
When the case finally got to court – Cohn’s lawyers argued – that Columbia was a New York company – Los Angeles was the wrong venue. The judge agreed, and the case was brought again in New York. After more delays, and more agitation for the director – they finally got a court date.
In New York, Columbia’s lawyers argued that the offending actions had taken place in London - so New York was the wrong venue. The judge agreed again. Rule Britannia. All the while - neither man was willing to give an inch. As the London case got close to a court date though – a long limo pulled up outside Capra’s house – Harry Cohn had come for a visit.
When the two men sat down, Cohn in his typically gruff fashion said – “Alright you got me, you goddamned (insert a stereotypical racial slur for Italian-Americans here).”
“What are you talking about,” came Capra’s response? “Turns out,” – Cohn said almost in tears. “In London, this is fraud. Everybody at the London office was going to jail.”
Capra insisted that he didn’t want that – in fact the London office had nothing to do with this. If Harry Cohn would just let him out of the contract - he’d drop the case.
But Cohn – now shedding crocodile tears – pointed out that if he lost his best director – Columbia’s most valuable asset – his brother Jack Cohn would have him removed and take his place as head of the company.
Capra knew this was a real possibility – the Cohn brothers hated each other – and Harry Cohn losing his job would undo all the work he and Harry had done at Columbia over the last several years.
“What do we do,” Capra asked?
“Show up for work tomorrow,” was Cohn’s reply.
Capra did - and second coming be damned – Cohn paid the $200,000 for the rights for You Can’t Take it With You.
And as if by magic - Capra’s name – this time - was above the title.
With production under way – Capra wanted Jean Arthur to play Alice Sycamore, but she was in a contract dispute. They arranged to borrow Olivia de Havilland from Warner, but at the last-minute Jack Warner backed out. Suddenly they didn’t have a leading lady.
To put the Jean Arthur deal over, Capra got Harry Cohn to buy the rights to “Golden Boy,” a play by Clifford Odets that Arthur wanted to star in. Capra agreed to produce the film with Arthur as the female lead, as his next picture. NOTE: The film was made – but with Barbara Stanwyck, directed by Robert Mamoulian.
Jean Arthur’s birth name was Gladys Green. She took her screen name from two of her favorite literary characters King Arthur and Joan of Arc - in French Joan is Jean. She was working as a model when she was discovered by Fox in the 20s. The problem was she couldn’t act. She polished and improved her craft making B Westerns for $25 a picture. When sound came in she worked hard on her voice, and successfully made the transition.
Arthur became a staple in Capra films, and had a successful career on Broadway.
It’s hard to believe seeing her on screen, but Arthur suffered from debilitating stage fright - even on set – with just actors and crew.
Capra had seen Jimmy Stewart in the film Navy Blue and Gold. He liked Stewart’s low key acting style, and devil may care attitude, so he cast him as Alice’s love interest.
Stewart was only thirty when he made this film, and had only been in Hollywood for a couple years. Stewart had gone to Broadway directly after Princeton, and worked his way west.
He was the first leading actor to enlist at the beginning of World War Two, eventually retiring as a Brigadier General. Born in Pennsylvania, Stewart became one of the most beloved of all Hollywood actors. No one had a bad word to say about him. His closest analogue today is Tom Hanks. He first signed with MGM, and before the end of his long career worked every major director in Hollywood. He’s best known for his Capra and Hitchcock films, It’s A Wonderful Life, and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. With Capra, and Vertigo, Rear Window, and Rope, with Hitchcock. He also worked with Henry Koster, Billy Wilder, Cecil B. DeMille, Anthony Mann - and virtually every leading lady in town. His final film was as the voice of Sheriff Wylie Burp, in the animated, American Tale - Fievel Goes West, (1991).
THE CHARACTER ACTORS
As with all his films, Capra rounded out the cast with his usual troupe of players.
Edward Arnold – plays the villain – turned hero. Capra had figured out that taking the story’s antagonist on a journey of self–redemption, gave the story and the character great depth. This often resulted in the villain becoming the true protagonist of a Capra film – i.e. the character who changes the most. In this case Arnold’s role as Wall Street King – who walks away from it all for the love of his son. Capra always saw Edward Arnold in the role, and delayed shooting for a couple of months to get him.
Lionel Barrymore – who plays Grandpa Vanderhof – suffered from debilitating arthritis. He could barely walk by the time You Can’t Take It With You was shot. By It’s A Wonderful Life – Barrymore was in a Wheelchair. Riskin and Capra – came up with an excuse in the script for You Can’t Take It With You – he’d broken his foot sliding down the stair banister on a dare.
Alice’s sister – Essie was played by newcomer Ann Miller – who reportedly lied about her age to get the part. She claimed to be 18, but was actually 15 – possibly only 14. It began a long successful career in movie musicals for Miller.
Their absent-minded mother was played by Spring Byington, who got a Best Supporting actress nod for the role.
Another Capra regular was H.B. Warner who makes a brief appearance as in the third act – as Ramsey. Warner would also appear as Chang in Lost Horizon, and the role of Mr. Gower in It’s A Wonderful Life. It was almost typecasting for this role – the man sacrificed for the success of others. Warner was well known for portraying Jesus Christ – in the silent film “King Of Kings.”
Dub Taylor – debuted in You Can’t Take It With You, as Essie’s husband, Ed Carmichael, the instigator of all the trouble in the plot. Taylor was on the Alabama football team that went to the Rose Bowl in January 1938. Taylor’s team lost the game, but he stayed around in L.A. looking for work in movies. He was cast in this role because he could play the Vibraphone.
Sam Hinds – who plays the fireworks making father in this whacky family, also played Jimmy Stewart’s father in It’s A wonderful Life. Hinds had been a successful L.A. attorney until the 29 stock market crash wiped him out. He didn’t begin acting until he was 54.
Another Capra regular – was Charlie Lane in the role of the dumbfounded IRS man. He was cast as the bank examiner in It’s a Wonderful Life, and considered, by Capra, to be his good luck charm. Lane who lived to be a hundred, was a founding member of SAG, along with the actor who played the judge Harry Davenpot. Davenport, Lane, and Eddie Foy Sr. originally referred to themselves as the “white rats.”
CAPRA LOVED ACTORS
Frank Capra would always talk to the actors playing even the smallest parts. He'd give them a back story; tell them where they were coming from; who they were and what they were about; so they have something to draw from in the scene.
As a result of his background working for Mack Sennett – Capra always put comic bits in his films – often with the background, and the supporting characters. He believed it gave depth and realism to the scene and made the lead characters more believable.
Capra films often had mob scenes. Capra saw – not the masses – but a group of individuals. He knew too well the dangers inherent if those individuals flew to close to the darkside – and became a mob. A lot of Capra plots pivot on the moment when the individuals become a mob. But – mostly like his hero/villain – they too are redeemed by story’s end.
Another subtle characteristic of Capra/Riskin films is the strong woman. A classic heroine comes in at the finale to redeem the male characters. Mary Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life, Babe Bennett in Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, and Clarissa Saunders in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.
In a typical Capra/Riskin story the men are all flawed – damaged goods – the remarkable women in their lives save them from themselves. In You Can’t Take It With You, Alice saves Grandpa from selling the family home, and destroying the old neighborhood.
The characters are likely why Capra films resonate so much. As corny as they can be –they were dubbed Capra-corn by the Hollywood press - there’s a richness and complexity to these stories that isn’t evident at a glance. On the surface Capra films seem like every other story you’ve ever heard. But, there’s so much more under the hood.
Capra films are rich, deep and play against type - strong women saving flawed men; villains who morph into heroes - and a cast of everyday actors who add depth and character to the story through comedy, and even as the voice of the mob.
You Can’t take it With You – was nominated for seven Academy Awards winning Best Picture and Capra’s third Best Director statuette in five years. He’d also won for It Happened One Night, and Mr. Deeds Goes To Town.