This may sound surprising but the Depression was a pretty miserable time. People didn't have a whole lot of money, and no one had work. It was (like the name says) depressing.
You might think that the iconic filmmaker of the Depression, therefore, would make downer films about being sad and having no money and the world generally being a cold place that kicks you in the butt.
But this would be wrong. The most iconic filmmaker of the Depression did not make depressing films. He made happy films. Films that not only didn't kick you, but which pulled you to your feet, brushed off your coat, and told you that you were awesome and America was awesome and the world is a great place. "Be of good cheer," these films said. "Gosh darn, we like you."
And who made those cheerful Depression films? Our man Frank Capra.
Capra's own life had the same sort of you-can-do-anything-and-have-fun-doing-it quality of his films. He was born in Sicily in 1897, and was one of seven children. When he was six they all traveled to America by sea, a voyage that Capra later recalled by saying of such passenger ships, "There's no ventilation, and it stinks like hell. They're all miserable. It's the most degrading place you could ever be" (source).
Despite the initial bumps, Capra embraced the American Dream; he insisted on finishing high school, even though his family wanted him to work (they "thought I was a bum" he said.) He even went to college in engineering, but he found his career in entertainment, first writing for vaudeville and then directing silent films.
When he started to work in the early 1930s for Columbia Pictures (see Production Company) with Robert Riskin (see Screenwriter) he really made his mark, releasing a series of classic films that made him the most celebrated director of his time.
It Happened One Night (1934) swept the Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, while Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), featuring Jimmy Stewart, is still regarded as a classic. After leaving Columbia, Capra directed his greatest triumph, 1946's It's a Wonderful Life, again with Stewart. The film did poorly at first, but has gone on to be Capra's most admired film, and the most iconic Christmas movie of all time.
Never seen It's A Wonderful Life? Here come some spoilers.
It's a Wonderful Life is about a small town guy who is convicted of financial impropriety and despairs. Then an angel shows him that if he had never lived, everyone would be sad. So he takes hears, and it all turns out okay. Happiness is distributed like confetti, and God puts everything right.
That's how Capra movies work. He was the Spielberg of his day; his films were about how people are decent, America is great, and the world is just. He even went so far as to say:
My films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they all learn to love each other. (Source)
So if You Can't Take It With You seems like its happy ending is a little too easy, or if you wonder how on earth Grandpa supports himself —well, that's Capra's thing. Realism isn't where he's at; realism is depressing.
In the world outside the movies, bad people sometimes win, sadness isn't banished at the end of two hours, and the Depression is depressing. On Capra's screens, though, all is well, always, no matter what. Only Mr. Kirby would deny it—and even he can be turned around with a harmonica.
Frank Capra is pretty famous still, and Jimmy Stewart remains a household name. But Robert Riskin? Shout his name in the dead of night and the owls will echo back, "Who?"
But Riskin wasn't a nobody. A Broadway playwright originally, he went on to script a giant tottering stack of classic films, the most famous of them for Frank Capra. In fact, you could say he was Capra's secret weapon, providing the backbone for many of his greatest triumphs, including Lad for a Day (1933) It Happened One Night (1934) Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and of course You Can't Take It With You, which was adapted from a play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman.
Riskin and Capra left Columbia Pictures to start their own production company in 1939. It didn't last though. Capra's films were known for their open-hearted vision of decency triumphant and niceness rewarded. However, Capra himself, in person, could be kind of a jerk—or so Riskin thought, anyway. He felt like Capra took credit for their collaborations, and so the two separated after Meet John Doe in 1941.
The next year—just to show you that sometimes the writer does get the girl—Riskin married glamorous King Kong star Fay Wray. They had a happy marriage until Riskin died of a neurological illness in 1955. Though he was only 58 years old, he'd had an illustrious Hollywood career, including five Academy Award nominations and one Oscar win.
So now when those owls start up, you can respond, "Riskin, that's who!" The owls will probably blink. But Riskin'll thank you.
Back in the 1920s and 1930s, Columbia Pictures was a joke. Of the big movie companies, Columbia was the least prestigious and had the worst reputation. Columbia movies had glasses and a runny nose and got pushed around by the other movies on the playground.
But then, one day, a savior came over, wiped Columbia's nose, got it stylish glasses and taught it super-karate so it could beat up all those other movie bullies.
The savior's name? Frank Capra.
Capra's It Happened One Night (1934) won a staggering five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Writing Adaptation (by Robert Riskin; see Screenwriter). All the other movies stood around with their thuggish jaws hanging down. Suddenly their punching bag was the hero of Hollywood
But everything between Capra and Columbia wasn't always awesome. In fact, Capra had a falling out with the studio heads the very next year, and tried to cancel his contract. Columbia won him back around, though, and he stayed. He made You Can't Take It With You in 1938— the highest-grossing Capra film at Columbia— and the American classic Mr. Smith Goes To Washington in 1939. He and Columbia then parted ways, but he had permanently altered the studio's reputation: because of Capra, the lowly, sniffly Columbia came to mean quality.
You Can't Take It With You was originally a play, staged entirely in the Sycamore house. You still get the Sycamore house in the film of course—but you get so much more.
There are trips to the bank offices, the park, the prison, to a fancy-dress restaurant, and all around town. And as the world multiplies, so do the characters. The handful of actors in the original script balloons to more than a hundred and fifty in the film, as bit characters wander through the streets and into the courtroom and generally mill in the background.
The crisp black-and-white images capture a house, and a world full of people and stuff. The film title You Can't Take It With You is supposed to be a rejection of money, but the multiple locations and the teeming actors suggest a lavish budget.
Grandpa stresses the importance of his friends, and the film is produced to maximize those friends scurrying hither and thither across the screen, whether it's the Sycamore household or the scampish street musicians. In contrast to a relatively sedate playhouse, the joy of the film You Can't Take it With You is the joy of film — the ability to make this big, living world.
Memorable film scores are usually thought of as being big sweeping affairs; the orchestra swells as the Death Star does its death-y thing, or the strings go nutty as the murderer closes in, or the flutes get all ethereal when the lovers look at each other.
Music. It's dramatic.
In You Can't Take It With You there's some background oomph in a couple of places and said oomph created by Dimitri Tiomkin, a Russian conductor and composer who worked on many of Capra's most famous films. But the most striking music Tiomkin makes here isn't big set pieces. Instead, it's diegetic.
What is diegetic music, you ask? Is it some weird 1930's genre that sounds like goats stuffed to their goat gills with extra-strength laxatives? No, not at all. Diegetic music is just music that is part of the action on screen. When Grandpa and Mr. Kirby play their harmonica duet at the end there, all the other characters can hear them, because the music is part of the story. That's diegetic music. (No goats in sight.)
All the best musical moments in the film are diegetic, like when Ed plays the xylophone and Essie pirouettes around, or the harmonica duet between Kirby and Grandpa, or the scene where Tony and Alice dance with the street performers (until the police interrupt them). The best musical scenes in the film are the characters enjoying music.
And not great, polished, sweeping music either; rather, they enjoy music that is small-scale, plunky, folksy fun. The film loves creativity, but not high-falutin', pompous creativity. Instead, it embraces creativity that all the folks can enjoy. You Can't Take It With You loves family entertainment, so it's no surprise that the best music from the score gives the family on screen something to dance to.
You Can't Take It With You was super-popular in 1938—but it doesn't involve starships or swords or an ongoing franchise. Old movie fans appreciate it, but it's not an active, squeeing fandom kind of film. No one ships Mr. Kirby and Grandpa… which is probably for the best. (We don't think they'd actually get along.)