Friday, December 24, 2010
Cinematic Spaces of Work and Courtship
In the movie version of You Can’t Take It With You, Frank Capra makes large additions in story content and small subtractions to the script by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. The added early scenes of Mr. Kirby’s Wall Street world provide a work environment in contrast to the eccentric household that is the only setting for the play. When scenes occur in the house, Capra reiterates their eccentricity and their collective happiness. But the audience also witnesses the early courtship of Alice and Tony, thereby investing us more deeply in the outcome of their romance which will change both families, not just the rich one. The scenes of work and courtship develop significantly the characters of Tony, Alice, and Mr. Kirby. In particular, Mr. Kirby becomes much more visible in his power, limited humanity (at the beginning), and growing conflicts, while the eccentric lifestyle of Grandpa and the Sycamores is somewhat less heroic and idealized in the movie. The two families meet more in the middle in the film, though their last scene is still under Grandpa’s roof and sway, with his eccentric patriarchy leading the way in the new words of his always thankful grace.
The script of You Can’t Take It With You is about work and play, but the content of the script focuses on the play, not the work. The script reveals what play is like for adults, but Capra also provides the contrasting work environment. While childlike play is still highlighted in how life should be lived, Capra’s additions make the movie more complex. He shows us Mr. Kirby’s daily reality. Among all the cars on the New York City street, the doorman spots Mr. Kirby’s automobile. This is clearly the most important part of the doorman’s day. We meet Mr. Anthony Kirby up close as he exits his car, and it is obvious this man is different from other men. Crowds part as the king of the jungle walks through the lobby. Mr. Kirby oozes power, and the whole building belongs to Kirby and Co. His elevator goes all the way to the top, and the elevator figures prominently in later scenes of decision and indecision. At the top of the elevator is the board room. At the bottom is the common man from whom Mr. Kirby is distinct from the very beginning. This representation of hierarchy and power cannot be conveyed as dramatically in a play, and Mr. Kirby will eventually leave his board to seek his son among the common people. In every respect, Mr. Kirby is as strong, resolute, and imposing as his building. His place in the world is something he inherited, but it is also something that he has built, and continues to build. In an addition to the script, there is an important deal in the works, one which dramatically makes Grandpa and his eccentric entourage an obstacle in more ways than one. Mr. Ramsey is mentioned in important conversations about the deal, and the camera puts us up close to Mr. Kirby in his scheming world of business machinations as Kirby is creating a monopoly in the munitions industry. We are huddled with the movers and shakers of the city, maybe even the country. It is impossible to imagine this character changing after a single evening with the Sycamores, which is the unconvincing outcome in the script. Only a weak character would have such an early and easy conversion. Capra’s Mr. Kirby is steadfast and formidable, and the work scenes establish his powerful grasp, his place in the world, one which will expand even larger once he buys Grandpa’s house, and destroys Ramsey in the process. These changes to the script insure greater dramatic conflict, and Capra puts us in the center of the plan in the filming of these additions to the story. The world of Kirby and the world of Grandpa are not just placed in comparison with one another, a whimsical dialectic of work and play. They are soon to be at war. The audience is in the know before the combatants, and Grandpa knows before Mr. Kirby.
But the work world also has a softer side in Capra’s opening additions to the story. The office is also a place for romance, presumably on the same floor as Mr. Kirby, or at least close by. The Vice President has something other than the stock market on his mind. He is in love. The office world is the first scene for Alice and Tony, and Capra expands on the script with scenes of courtship outside the office and Grandpa’s house. Moreover, Alice is defined apart from her family and their wacky household. Alice has gone to work, which is notable on its own. Somebody has to work. The child eventually has to leave home, even one that so successfully perpetuates childhood. Her Grandpa’s household is insufficient for her in some way, which is also in the script, but the film’s escape from the house makes this implication even stronger. Alice is different from Essie; she needs something more from life than dancing aimlessly around her parents’ house. The scenes between Tony and Alice are sweet and very affectionate, and Capra puts us close to their sweet kisses and clever wooing. Love is a perfected kind of play, especially when you’re at work. The audience is close enough to be in on the smooching. The most significant scene is their wonderful tangle of Alice and Tony while she talks on the phone without using her hands. While this scene could certainly be staged in a play, the reaction shot of Mrs. Kirby could not. We see her see their tangle of romance. Without even a word of dialogue, the sustained shot reveals Mrs. Kirby’s stern disapproval. She is horrified, as we see the lovers and their scandal through her eyes. This is the wrong balance of work and play. That is the wrong girl, Mrs. Kirby tells the audience.
The additional work scene of Mr. Blakely’s real estate office deepens the conflict between work and play. The added characters of Mr. Blakely and Mr. Poppins dramatically reveal the dangers of the work environment. While the powerful Mr. Kirby is the master of his work domain, the people under him clearly pay a price. Mr. Blakely is miserable. His twitch says it all, and Grandpa even calls him “Mr. Twitch.” Grandpa is different from everyone else because of his crutches, which is a simple way for Capra to single him out as unique, which he is. Mr. Poppins’ work routine shows the audience the banality of work—how the office environment deadens the soul. In his interrogation, which is both Socratic and childlike, Grandpa quickly draws out the quirky Mr. Poppins. Grandpa’s play ethic soon has another disciple, and Mr. Poppins leaves with Grandpa who doesn’t even meet with Mr. Blakely. Collecting Mr. Poppins and his mechanical bunny for his household seems to be the real reason for his visit. The language of the conversion as Poppins becomes a “lily of the field” is overtly religious.
The courtship of Alice and Tony is also presented beyond the confines of the office and the house with the scene in the park. They are outside, undefined by their families, and the two settings. In the additional scene with the dancing children, the playfulness of both adult characters is emphasized. Tony Kirby is no stiff suit, and the childlike dynamic of the Sycamores is deepened by these actual children. While highly talented dancing children may be an unlikely arrival in a city park at night, they establish Tony as a playful and exuberant participant in life, independent of Alice’s family. They don’t have the monopoly on how to live in the moment. The scene also complicates, rather than simplifies, a proper attitude to work and play. The children are indeed dancing for money. Rather than this play simply being about dropping out from the rat race and becoming a bum, Capra’s message is more complicated. Prior to the arrival of the youthful minstrels, Tony had confessed his real vocational interest, which is in plants, energy, and solar power. The question of not working is reiterated in the movie script, but Capra’s new scenes show characters struggling with how to make work meaningful; they are not simply indulging in childish escapism. The scene also foreshadows the ability of music to bridge gaps between people, and make work into play, and play into the important work of family reconciliation.
While the added scene of the children could easily be performed on the stage, the dinner scene at the swanky club restaurant could not. The scale of the scene makes the audience dramatically aware of public opinion, in this case among the elite. Mr. and Mrs. Kirby do not live in a vacuum. What will their world think of Alice and Tony? The sign gag, the remnant of their time with the children, makes Alice stand out, just as Grandpa on his crutches. She seems in over her head, which is something that the original script doesn’t convey. Will she be able to stand up to the scrutiny? Will she have to change? All of these questions squirm under the surface, and the crazy couple backing up through the restaurant cinematically portrays the social waves that they are making. The submerged scream shows us again Tony’s impish, creative, and spontaneous character. These two are full of life together, and Alice screams instead of Tony. Yet still Tony is game as he makes up a story about rats that turns the restaurant, and his upper class world, upside down. These two literally bring chaos wherever they go. Life runs through them like a squirrel.
The movie provides places of courtship and comedy on both a grand and intimate scale. The terrific fireworks of the arrest scene are obviously on a scale that a dramatic production could never replicate. But Capra also adds subtle scenes that could be presented effectively on the stage. The addition of Grandma’s room and the conversation with just Alice and Grandpa shows a new side to both characters. Grandpa is missing something significant in his life: his wife. He can still feel his beloved in this room; he can smell her. While we watch the two of them, the camera placement allows us to see Alice in the mirror. Grandpa can see his wife in Alice, and the audience can see Alice in her grandmother’s mirror.
There are many occasions where the camera controls where you look, and how we respond to elements in the original script. When Mr. Henderson is talking to Grandpa about his unpaid taxes, the focus is really on Tony, not the two men. His bemusement and mostly stifled laughter show the audience how deeply Tony already values the world view of his future in-laws. He is totally charmed by them. A noticeable and repeated technique of Capra’s is to film people from behind. This subtly amplifies the early comment that Alice first fell in love with the back of Tony’s head. This could be a whimsical, forgotten line in the script, but Capra makes it into something vitally important. There are many moments between Mr. Kirby and Tony when one of them has their back turned to the camera. These are powerful scenes of tense thought and confusion, when the characters are wrestling with their conflicts and dilemmas. They have very important decisions to make about how to be a father and how to be a son, but they don’t know what to do next. They turn their back on us. At these moments, we can only imagine their confusion because we can’t see their faces. The movie becomes more than screwball comedy. Something vitally important is being decided by these characters.
Capra’s small subtractions of the Hart and Kaufman script are less notable than what he adds. He subtracts the word association game, which probably would have troubled the censors. It is also too obvious as a scene. The idea that the play ethic of the Sycamores leads to a better sex life works better as a slight innuendo, rather than as a direct revelation in a word association game. Mrs. Kirby is more sympathetic in the script than in the movie, but the play makes her sexually unsatisfied, and a little vapid, rather than the judgmental and rigid presence that she is in the film to great dramatic effect. At the end she is the most reluctant convert, the last lily, to the new balance between work and play, and the new balance between the two families. Other subtractions include the omission of the second Russian character. One wacky Russian is certainly enough.
Capra’s movie adds the cinematic experience of public opinion to the insular world of the script and the single setting of the play. The newspaper clippings, along with the scenes in Grandpa’s neighborhood, make the audience aware that the larger community is watching very closely what happens between the two families. The courtship matters, and if Grandpa sells his house people will lose their homes and businesses. The neighborhood will be destroyed. The added scenes of the jail cell and the courtroom bring together people from all classes, along with the prying presence of the press. What could have brought these two families together? Everyone wonders. The group reactions of the jail cell and the courtroom make this question even more dramatic, and the Kirby’s face public opinion from the lower classes. We watch the reactions of the judge, along with the families in the courtroom scene as they begin, however primitively, to work together. Ironically this is the moment when Alice and Tony have their biggest rift, and it will take the efforts of group dynamics to bring them back together. Alice and Tony now have major problems, out in the open. This is serious stuff, much more serious than how to give up working, and Grandpa doesn’t have any more answers than Mr. Kirby does. Grandpa loses his temper in the jail cell (with Mr. Kirby’s back turned towards the camera). Lionel Barrymore’s Grandpa is edgier, capable of rage at a powerful man, and he can be just as judgmental as the Kirby’s. He is also willing to sell his house, which is a less than heroic decision given its effect on the neighborhood. Capra allows room for both families to grow and change.
As Capra uses group reactions and large gatherings to make the audience aware of public opinion, he also does something that is small and quite economical to bring everyone back together. He uses the simple harmonica (rather than a saxophone) to great dramatic effect. The harmonica never goes away as the movie progresses. It is slipped into the pocket of Mr. Kirby in the jail cell. Mr. Kirby later throws it down the boardroom table. From the camera placement, he literally throws it at the audience. The dying capitalist Mr. Ramsey throws it back at him. From the camera placement, we stand with Ramsey and hurl the harmonica back down the table. Both Ramsey’s death and the boomerang instrument are the keys, and cues, for Mr. Kirby’s conversion, and his decision to seek out Grandpa as he searches for how to reconcile with his own son. Grandpa and Mr. Kirby finally play their harmonicas together, and the group dance and celebration awakens the lovers from their quarrel. It brings everyone together. The music is Grandpa’s idea, but Mr. Kirby is also an agent of healing and reconciliation as an equal musician. Grandpa doesn’t just orchestrate the union of the two lovers through his play ethic. It takes a new kind of work, one that the two fathers have to do together. The music is able to bridge the gap between Alice and Tony, and the two families, along with the neighborhood, meet joyfully in the middle.