The joy nearly leaps off the screen and begs you to join. In a charming introduction, family patriarch Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore, on crutches due to arthritis) meets a mousy accountant named Poppins (the appropriately named Donald Meek), a dreamer who'd rather make toys than punch meaningless numbers all day. With a simple tease of what could be, Vanderhof convinces his newfound friend to toss it all away and live with his family. And poof, as Poppins says, "the die is cast."
That "die" leads Poppins -- and us -- to meet a houseful of loonies. Grandpa's daughter Penny (Oscar nominee Spring Byington) is writing a book with apparently little talent and has a small kitten as a paperweight. Granddaughter Essie (a teenage Ann Miller) lopes around the living room with fantasies of becoming a ballerina -- her brutal, Russian teacher exclaims, "She stinks!" -- and Essie's oafish husband Ed (Dub Taylor) plays the xylophone while wearing his old football jersey. Add in a group of explosives experts in the basement, a butler and a maid, and the Vanderhof house is a carefree free-for-all at a time when few people probably enjoyed that level of satisfaction. It's American utopia at its finest.
The Vanderhofs' happy world is jeopardized when a cold, stout entrepreneur (the excellent Edward Arnold) aims to buy their house in order to seal a real estate deal. Grandpa's not biting, but there's a catch: The businessman's son (Stewart) is secretly dating another Vanderhof granddaughter--albeit a far more normal one--played by the sweet, glowing Jean Arthur. How will springing the news on the families sacrifice lifestyles? Will love win out over commerce?
This was the first of three masterful collaborations between Capra and Stewart, with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's A Wonderful Life following within the next eight years. Stewart was already establishing his trademark warmth, his inimitable accessibility and vulnerability. Here, as in Wonderful Life, you'd believe he would give the world for his woman and keep his cool whenever possible. As Tony Kirby, the icon is a lean young man, appreciating the world around him and taking life as it comes.
As for Capra, this storyline plays right into his cinematic notions of the American Dream, as well as the fears and ugly capitalist structure that can rip that dream away. Appropriately, however, the film doesn't carry that with any level of gravity. For the style of You Can't Take It With You, it's enough for Grandpa to go out into the street and soothe the neighbors by telling them he's not selling his house, and that everything will be just fine.
For immigrants and distrustful but hopeful Americans of all stripes, it was probably calming to have a kind, honest leader on your side. Especially if that leader rants about the overuse of "-isms" (today it would be medical "syndromes") and doesn't see any reason to pay his taxes. Hooray for the Communists in the heart of America! Even if you don't agree with the politics, this family's having so much fun, you'll want to pull a Poppins and cast the die anyway.
Run time: 126 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 3rd November 1938
Distributed by: Columbia Pictures
Production compaines: Columbia Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Fresh: 28 Rotten: 1
IMDB: 8.0 / 10
Director: Frank Capra
Producer: Frank Capra
Screenwriter: Robert Riskin
Starring: Jean Arthur as Alice Sycamore, Lionel Barrymore as Grandpa Martin Vanderhof, James Stewart as Tony Kirby, Edward Arnold as Anthony P. Kirby, Mischa Auer as Boris Kolenkhov, Ann Miller as Essie Carmichael, Spring Byington as Penny Sycamore, Samuel S. Hinds as Paul Sycamore, Donald Meek as Mr. Poppins, H.B. Warner as Mr. Ramsey, Halliwell Hobbes as Mr. DePinna, Dub Taylor as Ed Carmichael, Mary Forbes as Mrs. Anthony P. Kirby, Lillian Yarbo as Rheba, Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson as Donald, Clarence Wilson as John Blakely, Josef Swickard as Professor, Ann Doran as Maggie O'Neill, Christian Rub as Schmidt, Bodil Rosing as Mrs. Schmidt, Charles Lane as Henderson, Harry Davenport as Judge, Irving Bacon as Henry - the Head Waiter (uncredited), Ward Bond as Mike - the Detective (uncredited), James Burke as Chief Detective (uncredited), Eddy Chandler as Plainclothes Policeman (uncredited), Anne Cornwall as Miss Jones - Blakely's Secretary (uncredited), Nell Craig as Blakely's Inquisitive Office Worker (uncredited), Edgar Dearing as Bill - Plainclothes Policeman (uncredited), Pat Flaherty as Police Guard at Courtroom Entrance (uncredited), Bess Flowers as Martin's Neighbor in Courtroom (uncredited), Robert Greig as Lord Melville (uncredited), Kit Guard as Inmate Wearing Black Cap (uncredited), John Hamilton as Kirby's Dining Guest (uncredited), Edward Hearn as Court Attendant (uncredited), Russell Hicks as Kirby's Attorney (uncredited), Edward Keane as Board Member (uncredited), Pert Kelton as Inmate (uncredited), Edwin Maxwell as Kirby's Attorney (uncredited), Frank McClure as Restaurant Patron (uncredited), Charles McMurphy as Guard (uncredited), James Millican as Policeman (uncredited), Edward Peil Sr. as Neighbor Helping with Move (uncredited), Ian Wolfe as Kirby's Secretary (uncredited)