You Can’t Take It with You (1938)

You Can't Take It with You (1938) movie poster

director Frank Capra
viewed: 04/30/2016

You Can’t Take It with You is by no means a perfect movie, but it is damned entertaining and a lot of fun.  It comes from Frank Capra’s most successful run, weaving stories of hope and humanity for the common American against the backdrop of the Great Depression.  Capra’s real world politics were conservative and his portraiture deeply sentimental, but his artistry was strong and his films could be complex, or at least open to more complex readings.

I’ve stated before that I’m no Capra scholar.  This was my first time with You Can’t Take It with You.  I’ve been working my way through his films and typically find them very enjoyable.  I’ve watched them with my now 12 year old daughter, who also enjoys them.  In fact, she probably enjoyed this film more than any other films we’ve watched in weeks.

It’s got the terrific Lionel Barrymore as the “grampa” of a house of collected eccentrics, family and otherwise, somewhat like a non-Goth Addams Family.  His granddaughter, the fabulous and charming Jean Arthur falls for the always lovable Jimmy Stewart, son of magnate Edward Arnold, capitalist (and firearms manufacturer) about to corner the market, driving his opponent to bankruptcy and destroying a working class neighborhood in the name of the almighty dollar.

Adapted from a Pulitzer-winning play, it’s got the common man and the brutal machinery of capitalism stuff that Capra works into magic.  To be honest, some of the stuff works perfectly while others seem to shrill a little hard.  And as likable as Barrymore is, his speechifying is certainly heavy-handed.

And yet, when the emotional surge at the end comes up, if you don’t feel a tug at those tear ducts.

Was it the Best Picture of 1938?  The Academy deemed it so.  I deem it a fine film.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) movie poster

director Frank Capra
viewed: 01/29/2016

Iconic as it is, with Jimmy Stewart filibustering on the floor of the Senate until he passes out, I’d never actually watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington until last Friday, when my daughter and I watched it.

It’s easy to see how this film catapulted Stewart to stardom.  And Jean Arthur is a real peach here, too.  It’s a great movie.

It’s amazingly dark, really.  When bright-eyed Mr. Jefferson Smith gets hand-picked to fill a Senate seat from an unnamed state, sent by the powers that be to fill a spot and vote along the lines of his fellow state Senator (Claude Rains), he’s agog at all the monuments to American heroes, statesmen, the ideals of democracy, that he gets lost in D.C., just starstruck by all its goodness.  But as this good-hearted fellow comes to learn the ways that things get done in the government, who really holds the political power are the rich, ruthless fat cats (who will even run down children to get their way), it’s a point of stark disillusionment that doesn’t even get fully swept away by the end of the film.

In fact, at the end of the film, even though Rains’s villain has capitulated, Mr. Smith is collapsed and unconscious, unaware of success.  Just as the state is never named, there are no political parties in the film either.  The film is polemical, wrapped in the indoctrinating Americana for which Frank Capra was so well-known.  And that keeps its critique still fresh.  This came from Capra’s period of disillusionment, which is interesting and worth contextualizing more in that he was such a notorious conservative overall.

Platinum Blonde (1931)

Platinum Blonde (1931) movie poster

director Frank Capra
viewed: 12/05/2015

The title Platinum Blonde cries out “Jean Harlow!” Yet, this Frank Capra pre-code Hollywood comedy is more than the bleached locks of a bombshell, while it’s not quite altogether notable for any one other thing.

Stars Harlow and Robert Williams would die tragically early in life from diseases ostensibly curable in modern times (even back in the 1930’s.)  Williams died only three days after the release of the film from peritonitis at age 37.  Harlow would die in 1937 at the age of 26 of complications of renal failure.  That said, it would take foreknowledge of those facts to impose tragedy on this film.

Interestingly, Harlow isn’t the real heroine of the film (nor is her titular hair color), but rather Loretta Young.  Young plays “Gallagher,” the only gal in the reporting game, seen as “one of the boys” by Stew Smith (Williams), whose head is turned by the high-class dame Ann Schuyler (Harlow).  What ensues is a class comedy, with its perspective clearly instilled not in the echelons of high society but in the more working class regular folk.

I’m no Capra scholar, so it’s hard for me to posit where this film belongs in his auteurial oeuvre (yikes, what a phrasing!), but what it has in charms and interest, it also feels like a roughish early “talkie” that hasn’t mastered the form quite as yet.  Williams isn’t really the most charming of leads (he might have been better in smaller character parts), though he delivers his lines with street-smart panache.  Entertaining enough, but not overly special.

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Arsenic and Old Lace (film) movie poster

director Frank Capra
viewed: 11/15/2015

The kids had really enjoyed Cary Grant in His Girl Friday (1940), and Felix was keen to watch another comedy with him in it.  So, for the second entry of our “comedy month” films, I selected an old favorite, Frank Capra’s 1944 version of Arsenic and Old Lace.

The whole film is a pretty hilarious romp, but the absolute best is the wonderful Josephine Hull as Aunt Abby Brewster as the cartoonishly sweet and silly serial killer euthanizer.  Jean Adair is also lovely as Aunt Martha, but Hull is just so perfect and gets the best lines and moments.  Grant pulls the most extreme double-takes of his career, finding out the secrets of his kind and darling aunts.  John Alexander is spot-on as “Teddy Roosevelt” Brewster, unsurprising in that Alexander, Hull and Adair were all reprising roles they had played in the play on Broadway.

The one gag that doesn’t go over nearly as well is the reference to Boris Karloff.  Raymond Massey plays the villainous Jonathan Brewster, scarred and face-lifted to look somewhat like Karloff at the hands of Dr. Einstein (played by the inimitable Peter Lorre).  Karloff played the role on stage and so the self-referential nature of the gag was inherently more impactful.  Here, it sort of works, but with the remove from time and place of the 1940’s, it’s just a little off.

The kids really enjoyed it.  Clara thought it was hilarious.  I have to say that I enjoyed it, having not seen it in eons, but I guess I enjoyed it slightly less than I had recalled.  It’s still a hoot, if not a perfect one.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It's a Wonderful Life (1946) movie poster

director Frank Capra
viewed: 12/22/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

Unlike most of America, I somehow grew up without Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life  as a staple of Christmas.    Actually, I don’t even know if I ever even saw it as a kid.  I’m not even totally sure when I finally did see it for the first time, perhaps in the early 1990’s.  So, I don’t have personal associations with the film to further color my experience of the film, at least not those ingrained from childhood.

My kids don’t have television at their home.  Well, not live television to watch, so they are not inundated that way by pop culture.  They get it one day a week when they come to my house and get to watch whatever.  I’ve noted before that those television traditions like The Wizard of Oz (1939) or The Sound of Music (1965) or It’s a Wonderful Life have gone the way of the dodo because those were the days of few television channels (few options) and no home video of any kind.  Really, we’ve entered the era of anything you want whenever you want it.  Forced exposure, for better or worse, is a thing of the past.  Still, there are all of us who grew up in that era and whether we grew up with a particular film or not, have been familiarized with the Hollywood Christmas canon.

The week before, I took the kids to see To Catch a Thief (1955) at the Castro Theatre.  This week it was It’s a Wonderful Life.  They really enjoyed it.

First of all, Jimmy Stewart.  I mean, with Harvey (1950) and this film, you’ve got two of his most definitive films.  This is from a rather broad ranging litany of great movies.  It’s pretty much impossible to think of this film with any other actor.  He’s so perfect as George Bailey, the man whose life comes to a crisis on Christmas Eve, nearly ending his life before his guardian angel shows him the world without him and makes him realize his worth and joy.  It’s a tearjerker.

It’s interesting to watch because the film has come to signify (perhaps with a number of others) a definition of American ideals, particularly with the sentiment of the winter holidays.  It does so very successfully, so successfully that it’s easy to just eat it up, and feel that happy glow.  But coming as it does, in 1946, right at the end of WWII, there is nostalgia and small town idealism, populist stuff, perhaps, but things deeper than that as well.

But I don’t feel like digging into it at the moment, though I do feel like seeing some more Frank Capra movies.  I definitely file this one under “enjoyed by all.”

It Happened One Night

It Happened One Night (1934) movie poster

(1934) director Frank Capra
viewed: 02/26/11

It had been years and years and years since I last saw It Happened One Night.  I remember really loving it and intending to see it again.  I took the opportunity from TCM, their Oscar build-up.  It’s one of only three films to win Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director.  And sometimes, Oscar gets it right.

This time around I enjoyed it again.  I think I like Clark Gable more now than I used to.  Claudette Colbert is awesome, too.  The rich, pampered, cloistered girl who runs away from her father to marry the first man she ever met meets the wily, wise newspaper reporter, down on his luck until he stumbles on this dame and her story.  It’s the template for thousands of other mis-matched, hate-each-other then fall-for-each other comedy couples, but rarely are they as deft and charming as in this one.

The contrast against the Depression Era lives of the people they meet on the road adds some period poignancy, though I’d be hard pressed without another viewing to drum up anything coherent to say about it.

Loved the singing of “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze”.