You Can’t Take It with You: Best Picture, 1938

The 11th Annual Academy Awards were the first to have no official host. You Can’t Take It with You was nominated for seven awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Supporting Actress (Spring Byington), Best Cinematography and Best Sound. Other important pictures that year included the following:

The Adventures of Robin Hood, a technicolor swashbuckler with Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone; considered the definitive Robin Hood (4 nominations, 3 wins). Grand Illusion, an anti-war piece, and the first foreign film to receive a Best Picture nod (which was its sole nomination). Jezebel, an ante-bellum period movie with Bette Davis as the Scarlett O’Hara-like heroine (5 nominations, 2 wins). Pygmalion, based on the acclaimed play which would eventually become the musical My Fair Lady (4 nominations, 1 win). Boys Town, a heart-warming true story about a priest (Spencer Tracy) who starts opens a sanctuary for troubled boys (5 nominations, 2 wins, including Tracy’s sole Oscar). Alexander’s Ragtime Band, a light-hearted period musical with Tyrone Power and Ethel Merman (6 nominations, 1 win). Angels with Dirty Faces, a gangster movie starring James Cagney, and the only significant nominee that was not up for Best Picture (3 nominations, no wins).

Best Supporting Actress went to Fay Bainter for her performance in Jezebel. George Bernard Shaw won Best Adapted Screenplay for Pygmalion (talk about stiff competition). The Great Waltz took Best Cinematography, Best Sound went to The Cowboy and the Lady and The Adventures of Robin Hood won Best Editing. That left Best Picture and Best Director to Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You. It is worth noting that Michael Curtiz directed five movies that year, and was nominated for Best Director for two of them, Angels with Dirty Faces and Four Daughters, but not for the biggest winner of the night, which he also directed: The Adventures of Robin Hood.

You Can’t Take It with You is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, who also collaborated on the acclaimed comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner (Hart would later write the screenplay for Gentleman’s Agreement, Best Picture of 1947). Amidst a crowd of odd characters and wild goings-on, the heart of the story lies in the romance between Tony Kirby (Jimmy Stewart), wealthy heir to enterprising capitalist giant, and his secretary, Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur). The tension in the story comes from the sparks that fly between Tony’s uptight, snooty parents and Alice’s excessively eccentric family, led by carefree, philosophical Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore).

This was Capra’s third Oscar win as director, following 1934’s It Happened One Night (which also won Best Picture) and 1936’s Mr. Deed’s Goes to Town. Capra was nominated the very next year for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and again in 1946 for It’s a Wonderful Life (which reunited Jimmy Stewart and Lionel Barrymore, playing a very different sort of character), but he never won again. Capra’s idealized visions of simple, wise and virtuous American men and women struck a chord with Depression-era audiences, and You Can’t Take It with You definitely shares the themes and basic philosophy of the rest of Capra’s films.

Capra and his characters in this film view ambition in the modern world of business as a soul-sucking, joyless life to lead. Even poverty is preferable to the drudgery of the office and the cut-throat nature of capitalism, because no one is truly wealthy without the love of friends and family. Grandpa Vanderhof is full of folksy wisdom like, “Lincoln said, ‘With malice toward none, with charity to all.’ Nowadays they say, ‘Think the way I do or I’ll bomb the daylights outta you,'” and “Communism, Fascism, Voodoo-ism, everybody’s got an -ism these days […] When things go a little bad nowadays, you go out, get yourself an -ism and you’re in business.”

The movie has some great comedic moments, but most of the best moments are a result of the chemistry between an excellent (but very young) Jimmy Stewart and appealing Jean Arthur. The film’s greatest fault is probably its length: at just over two hours, it’s probably at least twenty minutes too long. The extra runtime contributes to a definite lack of focus, and the main threads of the story sometimes feel lost amidst the hubbub. Capra can get rather preachy at times, and some of that preaching can grate on modern ears. But if he comes off at times as revoltingly saccharine and infuriatingly smug, Capra can also be refreshing and heart-warming under the right conditions. Still, this is definitely not his best (I’d probably put up It Happened One Night or It’s a Wonderful Life for that honor, with an entertainment vote tossed in the direction of Arsenic and Old Lace).

Of the other nominees, The Adventures of Robin Hood feels like the most wronged, and not only in this category, but there are a few other genuine classics in the mix, as well. As sometimes happens, some of the best and most enduring films of the year went totally ignored. 1938 saw the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s smash-hit The Lady Vanishes. A fantastically-entertaining blend of comedy and suspense, it is generally considered the best of all his British pictures. Then, there is the screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. It bombed hard when it was first release, and there is little wonder that it wasn’t nominated, but it has gone on to become one of the most enduring and beloved examples of its genre, and deservedly so. My pick for Best Picture of 1938 would definitely have gone elsewhere.

~ by Jared on May 18, 2008.

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