You Can’t Take It With You (Best Picture, 1938)
I realized halfway through this movie that I’ve seen it before, but didn’t remember it, which really didn’t bode all that well. YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU is a perfectly pleasant little movie with some very funny parts and some rather poignant parts, but I’m not sure it deserves to be labelled a “screwball comedy.” Comedy yes, and full of eccentric characters, but it isn’t the rollicking good time that can be found in other classic screwball comedies like THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, BRINGING UP BABY, or IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT.
The basic premise of the story is that the down-to-earth son (James Stewart) of a financial magnate falls in love with a granddaughter (Jean Arthur) of an eccentric family that believes in doing whatever makes them happy with little regard for conventional practices. Hijinks and misunderstandings ensue, and eventually the financial magnate reconnects with his sense of whimsy and fun, and all are happy.
The strength of this film is in its cast, which is really extraordinary. Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart, Edward Arnold, Ann Miller, Mischa Auer (he plays a Russian dance teacher whose judgement on all things is “eet steenks.”). It also has such recognizable character actors as Donald Meek and Spring Byington. Adapted from a play, the dialogue and scene premises wander between a tad sanctimonious and truly whimsical and fun. It’s worth watching YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU for Jimmy Stewart alone, who is at his bashful, clear-eyed, earnest best here. In one scene, a gaggle of kids in a park try to teach him to dance the Big Apple (a supremely silly pre-swing dance, trust me… I know people who dance it!), and in another one he claims he’s gotten everything he ever wanted just by yelling. And of course he then proceeds to yell. It’s funny, I swear.
So my final judgement is that this is a pleasant, though insubstantial film. It requires a good deal of suspension of disbelief (Seriously? You don’t realize that putting red flags in candy boxes with messages saying “The Revolution is Coming” won’t get you in trouble? PLEASE.), but it’s good fun all the same. It may not be a screwball comedy, but it’s definitely a comedy and turns in wonderful performances from Stewart and Barrymore in particular. The trick with comedies, whether from the 1930s or today, is to avoid overthinking them. Just turn off the analytical part of your brain for a couple hours and enjoy it.
Gone With the Wind (Best Picture, 1939)
I’ve seen GONE WITH THE WIND before. I tend to go whenever it’s shown at the Stanford Theatre in downtown Palo Alto because this is a movie that was made with the theater-size screen in mind.
Approaching GONE WITH THE WIND in the context of this project meant looking at it as a Best Picture winner, rather than a classic film. The problem with the so-called “classics” is that we feel obliged to love them, and if we don’t, we feel rebellious and a little resentful of the cultural pressure. So I’ll just say it straight out: I don’t love GONE WITH THE WIND. I don’t like Scarlett O’Hara or Rhett Butler or Ashley Wilkes or Melanie Wilkes or, really, anyone in the story. Mammy’s alright, I guess, but mostly because of Hattie McDaniels’ brilliance.
And yet, I continue to return to watch GONE WITH THE WIND. As I watched it this time, I thought about this fact a lot in hopes of trying to understand why. I realized that I can give GONE WITH THE WIND the strongest compliment I can give any film. In spite of not feeling particularly interested in story or characters, the film draws me in. It is truly one of the most beautifully filmed movies I know – from the costuming to the editing to the extraordinary cinematography, the sheer visual impact of the film is magnetic.
I’ve said I have no strong interest in Scarlett, Rhett, or any of the others, but I must say it was cast brilliantly. Olivia de Havilland as the too-good-to-be-true Melanie Wilkes is gentle and loving, and her husband and cousin Ashley (played by Leslie Howard, who manages to even look inbred) is quietly grief-stricken at the loss of the only world in which he truly belonged. Hattie McDaniels as Scarlett’s former nurse, Mammy, is deservedly famous. There are also the unsung minor characters, played by actors whose names I don’t know (though they can be found at IMDB) – Aunt Pittypat, Dr. and Mrs. Meade, India Wilkes – the list goes on and on. And, of course, the two main players. Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh are, in my opinion, perfect for their roles. Gable mocks and smirks, but the audience can see through the cracks in his armor to the true passion underneath. I think his best scene is towards the end of the film as he waits alone, drinking and unkempt, after Scarlett’s fall down the stairs and subsequent miscarriage. His grief and sense of personal guilt consume him, and suddenly all of his defenses are gone. It is clear to the audience why he leaves at the end, but what is never clear is why he loves Scarlett in the first place. I’d hate to think it was mere physical attraction – that would cheapen the whole story.
Vivien Leigh, on the other hand, may have seemed an unlikely Scarlett. She is, as my mother likes to point out, too beautiful to play Scarlett, who author Margaret Mitchell described as not actually beautiful but so fascinating that she seems beautiful. However, I think Leigh deserves her fame for this role. The movie clocks in at nearly four hours in length, and Scarlett is on camera for a good 80% or more of it. Scarlett’s journey is full of rapid emotional swings – never one to experience emotions mildly, so all are passionate – and the role appears to have been rather physically demanding, especially in the first half. On top of that, Leigh is supposed to have struggled with bipolar disorder, which couldn’t have been helped by the wild emotional vacillations of her character. As Scarlett’s second husband Frank Kennedy remarks, it’s amazing how quickly Scarlett can go from calm to furious. I may not like Scarlett much, but I am very impressed with Vivien Leigh in this picture.
If ever given the chance to see GONE WITH THE WIND in a cinema, take it. This film was designed for the large screen – the raw visual impact will take your breath away.
Next up: a few thoughts to reflect on the 1930s winners, then Rebecca (Best Picture, 1940) and How Green Was My Valley (Best Picture, 1941)