The next screening (on June 7th) is not exactly Frank Capra’s forgotten movie (after all, it won a Best Picture Oscar) but it’s perhaps not as famous as Capra’s other films (i.e. It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946; Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, 1939). And yet it is unquestionably a ‘minor classic’ which deserves to be better remembered – especially by today’s bankers and purveyors of inequality.
Stenographer, Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) is in love with her boss Tony Kirby (James Stewart). But Tony is the son of a greedy banker and weapons dealer, Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold), who is close to the biggest deal of his career provided he can buy the last bit of a plot comprising a house owned by an eccentric old family of inventors, authors, painters, printers, dancers, xylophone players and fire-work makers – a family coincidentally headed by Alice’s grandfather, Martin Vanderhoff (Lionel Barrymore), though no one realises this yet.
When Tony proposes, Alice arranges to introduce her simple and lunatic family (right) to the Kirbies. But not wanting her family to put on a show to impress his own family, Tony turns up a day early for the dinner engagement. There is an inevitable clash of classes and lifestyles … that winds up with everyone in jail. This turns out to be just the beginning of the rich Kirby family learning a little bit about how to be real human beings.
Grandpa Vanderhoff seems to have all the best lines on this:
Grandpa Martin Vanderhoff: How would you like to come over to our house and work on your gadgets?… Oh go on, you’ll love it. Everybody over at our place does just what he wants to do.
Poppins: Well who takes care of you?
Grandpa Martin Vanderhoff: The same One that takes care of the lilies of the field, Mr. Poppins, except that we toil a little, spin a little, have a barrel of fun. If you want to, come on over and become a lily too…
Alice Sycamore: You ought to hear Grandpa on that subject. You know he says most people nowadays are run by fear: fear of what they eat, fear of what they drink, fear of their jobs, their future, fear of their health. They’re scared to save money, and they’re scared to spend it. You know what his pet aversion is? The people who commercialize on fear, you know they scare you to death so they can sell you something you don’t need.
Grandpa Martin Vanderhoff: What makes you think you’re such a superior human being? Your money? If you do, you’re a dull-witted fool, Mr. Kirby. And a poor one at that. .. When your time comes, I doubt if a single tear will be shed over you. The world will probably cry, “Good riddance.” That’s a nice prospect, Mr. Kirby. I hope you’ll enjoy it. I hope you’ll get some comfort out of all this coin you’ve been sweating over then!
They are all brilliant! From the debut of Dub Taylor (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967; Back to the Future, 1990) to the already veteran actor Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, to James Stewart and Edward Arnold’s grand capitalist. But it’s Barrymore who gives a towering performance which is as relevant in 2015 as it was in 1938.
And the directorial performance of Frank Capra (seated left in the photo with Barrymore and Jean Arthur on the set) as usual makes you laugh, makes you cry and finally, in a climactic scene that brings a tear to the eye, make you glad to be alive (as only the classic movie can).
It may be true that you can’t take your money with you – but you can take this movie (and its message) to heart.
Shortly before filming began, Lionel Barrymore lost the use of his legs to crippling arthritis and a hip injury. To accommodate him, the script was altered so that his character had a sprained ankle, and Barrymore did the film on crutches, receiving injections every hour to help relieve the pain.
Anne Miller (Stage Door, 1937; On the Town, 1949; Kiss Me Kate, 1953; Mulholland Drive, 2001) was only 15 years old and, called on to perform numerous ballet positions (including very painful toe pointe), hid the pain but would cry off stage. Stewart noticed her crying, though he didn’t know why, and brought her boxes of chocolate to make her feel better.
One of the new characters created by Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin was Mr. Poppins (Donald Meek) an inoffensive little bureaucrat who would rather make toys than add columns of figures all day (left). One meeting with Grandpa Vanderhoff persuades him to follow his dream. He blended so well with the household characters that Kaufman and Hart praised his creation.