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You Can't Take it With You

You might be surprised to learn that Meet the Fockers won the Academy Award for best picture in 1938, when it was called You Can't Take it With You. Frank Capra directed and produced this movie which marked the transition from the rich meets poor phase of his career (It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, both of which won him the best director Oscar) to the little guy fighting the man phase of his career (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe). Edward Arnold plays AP Kirby, a rich business man who is just returning from a lobbying trip to Washington to there would be no federal interference in his bid to monopolize military contracts on the eve of World War II. The factory he plans to build sits on a 12 block parcel he is buying up piece by piece. Only one piece remains out of his hands, as a man named Martin Vanderhof, played by Lionel Barrymore, refuses to sell. Vanderhof shows up at the bank and instead of selling his land, convinces a teller named Mr. Poppins to quit his job and join the sort of commune set up in the Vanderhof household. The Vanderhof's are an interesting bunch. There's a group making firecrackers in the basement, Vanderhof's granddaughter Essie is a compulsive dancer, and his daughter Penny rarely looks up from the novel she's writing. They call their other granddaughter Alice to see if she happens to be coming home for dinner and she is at the office where she is staring dreamily into the eyes of her boss, who happens to be none other than Kirby's son Tony, played by James Stewart. After some banter he pops the question and she says yes. Back at the Vanderhof's, Grandpa convinces the neighbors not to sell their land after all, vowing not to sell himself. Meanwhile in the basement the commune strikes on the idea to make a toy soldier display depicting the Russian Revolution, advertising the display with inserts saying "watch for the revolution" placed into boxes of candy they sell. Tony's first meeting with the Vanderhof clan is very eventful as it coincides with the visit of an IRS agent, leading to a debate between Grandpa Vanderhof and the agent in which Grandpa runs circles around him. Tony and Alice head out to dinner where they happen to be at the same restaurant as Tony's father, which leads to Alice suggesting the two families have dinner together. Alice wants the dinner to go smoothly, and asks her parents to reign it in for the night. However due to a confusion in the dates, the Kirbys arrive as Penny is painting a portrait of one of the clan as a discus thrower, Grandpa is throwing darts, and Essie is taking a dancing lesson from her Russian dance instructor, with musical accompaniment by her husband on xylophone. The two groups try to gut it out until the dance instructor tries to make a point about wrestling being good for the physique by body slamming Mr. Kirby. However before they can storm out the door the police storm in to get to the bottom of the pro-revolution inserts in the candy boxes. The whole gang, the Kirbys and the Vanderhofs are thrown in jail where the tension increases between them. During the ensuing session of night court Mr. Kirby refuses to tell the judge why he was at the Vanderhof house, and Grandpa Vanderhof steps in to help by claiming the visit was about the possible sale of their home. The divide between the two families seeming too great, Alice breaks off the engagement and skips town and a distraught Grandpa agrees to sell the house and use the money to move the entire clan closer to where Alice has settled. What should be Mr. Kirby's moment of triumph leaves him feeling hollow, as he realizes he has given up his humanity for success. In the end he rushes back to the Vanderhof house as they are packing up to leave, where he sees his son reunited with a newly returned Alice, and the patriarchs of the two households play a duet on the harmonica. This is one of the funniest movies I've seen. Barrymore does a beautiful job as the eccentric old man, and Arnold goes toe to toe with one of the greatest actors of the early 20th century and is able to hold his own. Even the actors with the smaller roles turn in wonderful performances, and when the many oddballs in the group interact with each other, such as the scene where the Russian dance instructor tries to convince Mr. Kirby he has ulcers, the writers spin comedy gold. Many scenes are packed with laughs from beginning to end, and Capra adds to the screwball comedy with little recurring jokes, like the picture that keeps falling down, a tactic he brought back with Teddy Roosevelt charging up the stairs in Arsenic and Old Lace. There are many little touches that make this even more special, from the hookers in jail asking Mrs. Kirby if she gets more clients with her high class look, to Grandpa Vanderhof fighting the urge to hit his daughter in the ass with a dart. Other nominees that year included Adventures of Robin Hood, Pygmalion, and Boy's Town, and if Oscar had gone the way of the more serious fare, as it usually does, I wouldn't have been surprised. The Academy voters decided to have a little fun that year however. None of the serious movies nominated are nearly as good as this one. It may not be the best comedy of all time, or even of its decade, but it is the funniest Oscar winner I've seen so far, and the best movie of 1938.


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