You Can’t Take It With You (1938)

It’s Truly a Wonderful Life

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

You Can’t Take It With You follows the Sycamore/Vandrerhof household; the ultimate eccentric family. In fact eccentric probably isn’t the right word, they’re complete nuts. They live a counter-cultural lifestyle of not working or paying taxes (and somehow getting away with it) and doing whatever makes them happy without a care in the world; people who aren’t afraid to live. There are like cartoon characters who can twist their way out of any situation with people more in tune with reality, such as when Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) manages to convince the timid Mr. Poppins (Donald Meek) to stop throwing his life away working as a bureaucrat and start having fun. The Sycamores/Vanderhofs are families we probably can’t be in real life but wish we could.

Even with a large ensemble cast, Lionel Barrymore is the actor at the heart of the film in a role which is the polar opposite of his part of Henry F. Potter in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. The scene in which Vanderhof is confronted by a government official played by the always miserable looking Charles Lane feels like a dig at big government. When Grandpa asks the official what the government gives him for his money he is given the response of “The government gives you everything”, emphases on the word everything, followed by Vanderhof’s humorous but thought-provoking rebuttals. The family’s refusal to pay taxes may be ethically questionable but it’s a movie fantasy and could never happen in real life. Don’t you wish you could deal with bureaucracies as easily as Grandpa Vanderhof?

One of Grandpa Vanderhof’s other fascinating moments is his monologue on “ismmania” although I’m quite sure what to make of it (“when things go a little bad nowadays you go out and get yourself an ‘ism’ and you’re in business”). The message feels similar to a 1948 animated short “Make Mine Freedom” in how the danger of isms can cripple the people. All we need is our Americanism as Vanderhof proclaims, which itself is an ism but I digress. Regardless his line which following this, “Lincoln said, with malice toward none, with charity to all – Nowadays they say think the way I do or I’ll bomb the daylights out of you”; that gives me chill every time.

One the sweetest, most heartwarming scenes in any film ever is when Grandpa Vanderhof tells Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) about his love for his deceased wife and how the room still smells of her perfume. Ugh, it just kills my poor little soul; a perfect display of Capra’s gift for directing very intimate, emotional scenes in which the rest of the world ceases to exist. Likewise, there doesn’t seem to be any actress whom James Stewart didn’t share a great dynamic together. James Stewart and Jean Arthur share a perfect chemistry together, pairing the embodiment of the everyman and the embodiment of the everywoman.

Non-conformity is the name of the game in You Can’t Take It With You. Grandpa Vanderhof understands the preciousness of life as he pursues his own interests and his own forms of fulfillment. He encourages others to follow their dreams and not submit to the will of others. In one scene Alice speaks of Grandpa’s thoughts on how “most people are run by fear, the fear of what they eat, fear of what they drink, fear of their jobs, their future, their health, scared to save money and to spend it. People who commercialise on fear scare you to death to sell you something you don’t need”. Amen sister! – The only thing to fear is fear itself.

You Can’t Take It With You promotes what we would now refer to as a libertarian mindset, live and let live as long as you’re not hurting anyone. As Tony Kirby (James Stewart) tells his father Antony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold) towards the end of the film, “I think this business is great. It’s good for you because you like it. I don’t, and I never will”. In many ways the Sycamore/Vandrerhof family is the embodiment of the American Dream. They own their property, each member pursues their individual dreams and they are above all happy. They live their life without inference from the government or other such bodies: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

One of the other messages derived from You Can’t Take It With You is the same as that to come from the ending of It’s a Wonderful Life in which the townspeople come to George Bailey’s aid, giving him money so he won’t have to do jail time followed by the final message from the angel Clarence; “No man is a failure who has friends”. A very similar incident occurs in YCTIWY in which friends and neighbors of the Sycamores pay for their fine in night court so they won’t be locked up. Likewise, the family’s arrest for being mistakenly identified as communists feels like a foreshadowing to McCarthyism. Then again they should have thought that a fireworks show based on the Russian Revolution as well as advertising it perhaps isn’t the greatest idea; it stinks!

There are those who will hear the name Frank Capra and have a reaction along the lines of “Oh Frank Capra, sentimental, saccharine, manipulative rubbish”. I don’t make apologies when I say that dismissing a film for being sentimental is the nonsense film criticism to end all nonsense criticisms; it stinks! Newsflash, stories have been manipulating people’s emotions since the dawn of time. Pulling of effective sentimentality is a skill and I have not come across a single good reason as to why it is a problem. You Can’t Take It With You is Capra at his most sentimental, manipulative, saccharine and all those other dirty words and I love it for that. So if that’s the crime of the century, then lock me up for life. Capra-corn and proud of it!

A Woman’s Face (1941)

Two-Faced Woman

A Woman’s Face is a trashy, pseudo-horror movie like film but one presented as an A-picture melodrama. I’ve watched A Woman’s Face five times as of writing this review and gets better every time I watch it. Within the last year, I’ve felt the motivation to watch the film three times, something which is almost unheard of for me; this movie is that good. I’ve now decided, screw it, this is my favourite Joan Crawford film and considering there’s tough competition from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Mildred Pierce and The Women, that’s saying a lot.

Every major cast member in A Woman’s Face is superb. I know that sounds like a generalization but it’s true. Firstly there’s Conrad Veidt as Torsten Barring. I adore every second this man is on screen; he’s just so delightfully sinister but in the most absorbingly charming manner – I’m swept off my feet by his presence. I can completely buy into the romance he shares with Anna Holm (Crawford) because he looks past her facial disfigurement and is unbothered by it. Melvyn Douglas is the other great charmer of the cast, whom I’ve yet to see paired with an actress who he didn’t share great chemistry. Ossa Massen, Reginald Owen, Albert Bassermann, Marjorie Main (unrecognisable here) and Donald Meek are also all equally memorable and stand in the strong characterisations of their roles. Likewise on re-watching look out for the moments of foreshadowing (“You love children? I loathe them”).

Then there’s Crawford herself in a once in a lifetime role as a facially disfigured woman, a part few actresses would be prepared to play. Her character of Anna Holm only engages in deceitful acts because of society’s mistreatment of her since childhood but is otherwise good at heart. Anna tries to make the best for herself and doesn’t dwell into a victimhood complex (“I don’t care for pity ether”); she runs her own tavern, pursues different talents and less virtuously is involved in criminality. Regardless throughout the film my heart pours out for the poor woman and yet even with the disfigurement I still find Crawford to be incredibly beautiful in this film, nor does the disfigurement ever take away from the asset that is her stunning body. If anything the moment in which Anna returns from a shopping trip and is wearing a very excessive blouse to take attention away from her face is the one moment in the film in which her character comes off to me as pathetic sight.

A Woman’s Face is one of the few thrillers George Cukor directed with echoes of Hitchcock throughout, such as the shots of the smelter plant and a waterfall in the background (similar to the scenery in films such as Foreign Correspondent), to the film’s suspenseful scenes such as that atop the cable car. This sequence itself is absent of any music, simply allowing the sound of the nearby waterfall and the smelter plant increase the tension while the film’s climax, on the other hand, offers a sort of Ben-Hur on sleds finale. Since I consider this film far superior to Hitchcock’s thriller offering that year of Suspicion, Cukor out Hitchcocked Hitchcock. With Cukor being one of the great masters of his trade, the cinematography of A Woman’s Face is a feast for the eyes. Technically speaking, the scenes at the hospital and Anna’s subsequent unbandaging are my favourite part of the film. Along with A Woman’s Face and the 1934 medical drama Men In White, it makes me wonder if it’s just me or do medical interiors and apparatuses make for some of the best subjects to capture on film.

Being a remake of a Swedish film, there’s something somewhat unconventional about A Woman’s Face for a Hollywood film. The movie does manage to capture the essence of its Northern European setting (despite much of the cast supporting American accents) and offers a slice of Swedish culture with its dancing sequence.

I consider 1941 to be the greatest year in the history of cinema. The output of this single year is the jealous vain of entire decades and A Woman’s Face just adds to this. Melodrama seems to have a bad reputation for no good reason. Like many things, it can be done well and done poorly. A Woman’s Face represents the old Hollywood melodrama tailored to perfection.

The Whole Town’s Talking (1935)

A Tale of Two Eddies

It’s already unexpected that John Ford directed a screwball comedy (as well as a film set in urban America, which he rarely did), even more so that it’s one of the inventive, inspired and quirky screwball comedies ever from a director who has no other association with the genre. The Whole Town’s Talking is a delight to watch as it unveils each increasingly surreal situation.

Edward G Robinson appeared in a number very quirky comedies such as The Amazing Dr Clittlerhouse, Brother Orchid and Larceny Inc which have made me prefer him in comedy over drama. Here you get two Robinsons for the price of one playing the dual role of the lovable, naive Jonsey and the notorious gangster Mannion. I believe this may be Robinson’s best performance. Not only does he play two characters who look the same but are worlds apart in terms in personality, he also has to play Mannion pretending to be Jonsey! Even though he is held in high regard as an actor, I feel Edward G. Robinson has never been truly celebrated for just how versatile he is; going far beyond the gangster roles he is most famous for. The film’s use of spilt screen and back projection techniques are executed to a seamless degree. In one particular shot featuring the Robinsons sharing the frame, notice how the smoke coming from Mannion’s cigar enters the other end of the frame over Jonsey.

Jean Arthur’s Miss Clark is one of the coolest, craziest and more carefree characters ever. When she finds out she has been sacked after arriving to work late she doesn’t care in the slightest. Or how about when she discovers that Jones keeps a picture of her by his bedside which he stole from her at the office. She isn’t disturbed, she finds it cute! Everything she does is so laid back and without a care in the world; I love this character!

The only minor complaint I have with The Whole Town’s Talking is the possible plot hole at the beginning of the film in which Jones rushed out of his apartment after the realisation he is late for work he leaves the bath running. This had me thinking that when he returned home his house would become flooded but the running bathtub is never addressed. Regardless, the film’s screwiness is in no short supply. This movie not getting the recognition it deserves? Mannion!

Captain Blood (1935)

There Will Be Blood

Captain Blood, the one that started it all – the breakthrough roles for Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland and the first of their eight films together. The picture which saw the first of eleven films Flynn would make with director Michael Curtiz and the movie which helped establish Erich Wolfgang Korngold as one of Hollywood’s greatest composers. Captain Blood ushered in a new era for the swashbuckler, a genre which was huge in the 1920s but became practically non-existent during the pre-code era.

Talk about a great start for two careers; two unknown actors being cast in a major production at one of Hollywood’s biggest studios. Should Hollywood have taken risks like this more often or was Captain Blood just one freakishly lucky gamble? With his long hair and muscular physique I don’t think Errol Flynn has ever appeared more attractive than he was in Captain Blood; he certainly never looked this beat up than he did in any of his subsequent movies. Reportedly during production scenes had to be reshot as Flynn’s acting had improved so dramatically over time. The man is a far better actor than he’s given credit for and perhaps the only other man in Hollywood who could rival Clark Gable in terms of pure swagger (just look at his ability to manipulate those two foolish doctors into assisting him into escaping from the island). The scenes between Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland are pure movie magic. When they’re in isolation it’s like they’re suddenly in a whole world of their own – it’s truly phenomenal chemistry. De Havilland was only 19 during the filming of Captain Blood, and it never ceases to amaze me I watch her in a film and knowing that she is still with us as of writing this review. Likewise, it is worth the 70-minute wait until Basil Rathbone finally enters the picture as the larger-than-life, French playboy Captain Levasseur.

In contrast to MGM’s Mutiny On The Bounty from the same year, Captain Blood does suffer slightly from being a more studio-bound product with no location filming (with the exception of the swordfight between Blood and Levasseur) or the aid of a life-size ship recreation. It’s also odd that the film is quite reliant on inter-titles to progress the plot, a silent-era holdover which still made it to 1935. Regardless, under the direction of Curtiz, the topical, palm tree-laden sets do come to life.

Dr Peter Blood reflects Flynn’s real-life personality if the man’s biographical tales are anything to go by – a free spirit who “has had enough adventure for 6 years to last him 6 lifetimes”. The plot of Captain Blood is a surprisingly empowering tale of defiance against corrupt and unjust authority. Blood is a doctor whom after following his sacred duty as a physician and giving medical aid to a wounded rebel during the Monmouth Rebellion in England circa 1685, is sentenced to slavery in a Caribbean colony and denied even the right to a fair trial. Captain Blood, however, is not your typical pirate picture. Blood and his band of escaped convicts do not bare eye patches, peg legs or utter “shiver me timbers”. They are not bloodthirsty pirates and do uphold moral convictions such as disdain the molestation of women (their articles forbid such action). Blood is not too dissimilar to Robin Hood and his Merry Men, they are not revolutionaries but rather outlaws who want to see the rightful king returned to the throne of England.