Winner of two Academy Awards (including best picture), and due to the title + Frank Capra directing/producing and Jimmy Stewart and Lionel Barrymore starring in both, I always think of this one and It’s a Wonderful Life as being peas in a pod.
Quick summary from my DVD case so you know where we’re going, “When Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) agrees to marry Tony Kirby (James Stewart), she has no choice but to invite his wealthy parents over for dinner. But when the ultra-conservative Kirbys finally meet the decidedly eccentric Sycamore clan, it turns into a memorable night filled with firework displays, wrestling matches, ballet dancing, police raids, and mass arrests.”
I decided to do narrative style so you get the set up, but stopping half way so you don’t get any major spoilers for the exciting ending. ;)
After the opening credits we start right in following Mr. Kirby Sr. (Edward Arnold) -- clearly a Big Somebody and all business. With reporters dogging his footsteps, he heads into his office, business partners at his heels. There he lays out the recent developments in greasing the wheels to pull off creating a huge monopoly of some sort.
Meanwhile, Kirby Jr., vice president, is looking bored.
After chugging down a glass of bicarbonate of soda for his stomach ailments, Kirby Sr. is on the phone with one of his agents (a funny excitable character who gets more and more worked up over the course of the film) trying to secure the purchase of a last ticklish little piece of property which will enable him to hem in his primary business opponent. Anyway, here Kirby Sr. shows a little glimpse of his ruthless side.
We now hop over to the agent’s office and meet Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore), owner of that bitty piece of property, who’s waiting for an appointment and visiting with a harried Mr. Poppins (Donald Meek). Grandpa (more focused on others than himself and an expert in the Pollyanna approach to living) is quizzing Mr. Poppins with a few simple, offhand, straightforward questions on the nature of his work and greater purpose in life.
After a funny little moment with the agent, Grandpa leaves with Mr. Poppins in tow -- intent on becoming a lily of the field, like the other people in Grandpa’s household.
Back home, Grandpa’s daughter, Mrs. Sycamore, is busy typing up her latest idea for a play and one of his granddaughters, Essie (Ann Miller) is pirouetting round the kitchen and living room en pointe while testing out her new candy recipe (for the booming little business she runs out of the house with her husband).
And we learn that Mr. Sycamore is hard at work in the basement with his compatriot, Mr. DePinna, creating some new fireworks.
I love this part, firecrackers going off in the background while Mama just keeps typing away unfazed. (With a few adjustments, i.e. the firecrackers weren’t actually in the house, this sort of scenario has happened round my own establishment at times. XD Definitely keeps life fresh and exciting.)
Ed, Essie’s husband, arrives home from making deliveries. They are very much in love/totally at ease with each other and make such a sweet couple.
Ah, and now we find out why the younger daughter, Alice, is late. (Here she's figuring out how to take the phone off the receiver while still holding hands. A prickly difficulty if ever there was one.)
I’m never quite sure about Jean Arthur in this part, but after about two scenes she wins me over. And her character does develop very nicely as we go along.
They have a charming little give and take -- and clearly the esteemed vice president is falling for his secretary.
In the midst of this his mother comes through; and she isn’t pleased.
The whirlwind departs, and I'll just mention here that I love Tony and Alice's little one liners and fun, down-to-earth witty banter (a standby of their relationship all the way through).
Tony’s rambling stories are so funny.
Yeah... they're really cute and this has gotta be one of the most adorable proposal scenes ever.
Now we go back to Grandpa heading out for a walk, and we soon find he’s well beloved everywhere.
But all is not well in the neighborhood. Some unknown big tycoon is buying up everything, threatening to tear apart the fabric of their little world.
And these two toughs are going to start digging for dirt on Grandpa that’ll force him to sell likewise.
Now Alice arrives home and, while sharing the exciting news that she’s going out with Mr. Kirby -- but without sharing that a proposal has already happened -- she, not terribly tactfully, basically asks her family not to embarrass her as she’s worried they’ll overwhelm and scare him off.
Grandpa decides to delve a little deeper about this young man and the conversation morphs into a reminiscence on dear, long gone Grandma, whose influence is still so much felt throughout the house.
Meanwhile back downstairs, before the real Mr. Tony arrives, there’s a little mix-up, as an IRS agent appears and is mistaken for Alice’s young man.
And now the real Mr. Kirby Jr. appears. So funny.
Alice is still getting ready upstairs and the tax mix-up is turning into a little dust-up. The debate turns to battle ships, which brings up the interesting reminder that this was all filmed on the eve of WWII. Grandpa’s a bit of an anarchist. Of sorts. Or he likes to talk anyway and throw out thought experiments.
Tony’s enjoying it.
Alice comes down and is in a hurry to get him away, but Tony insists they stay for a minute to see the end of the thing. And of course he starts breaking up laughing in the corner.
The tax man leaves in a hurry and as Alice and Tony are on their way out, Essie’s dance teacher, Mr. Kolenkhov, is on his way in for a lesson (and dinner… and to get his shirts washed and mended).
After an unconventional but personal prayer over the table from Grandpa, everyone digs in.
In the car, Alice is explaining more about her family.
And then we have this romantic moonlit scene in the park. Including most importantly a discussion on the subject of fear -- living in fear… fear of what you eat, fear of what you drink, fear of everything -- and then those who capitalize on those fears. All of which is Absolute Gold.
And Tony shares his own long buried dream.
I love how they’re in love and also share such good camaraderie. It’s the darlingest love scene.
A troupe of children appear, trying to make a bit of money, and an impromptu dance lesson happens, which is too sweet. :)
Then it’s off to dinner where they bump into the Kirbys Sr. and some other Very Important People, and there’s a funny little upper crust interchange.
Tony and Alice fit together and play off each other so well. They just plain seem to enjoy each other’s company. Once they finally make it to their own table, Alice is determined that if this is going to work, they have to start at a place of complete honesty and Tony’s family has to get to know hers. And so the Dinner Invitation Scheme is hatched.
(And then follows an entire ‘mouse under the table’ scenario, which I’ll let you discover for yourself.)
In the interest of not fighting their son (and risk making him more stubbornly set in his ways) and expecting that Alice comes from some boring middle class family, the Kirbys Sr. agree to the Sycamore’s dinner invitation. Only problem: in the interest of them seeing the Sycamores as they really are, Tony brings his parents a day early, and instead of the nicely laid out dinner party, they walk into…
...which of course, his fiancée is none too pleased about and also sets off a whole string of hilarious, snowballing misadventures in the second half of the film. Suffice to say, an accidental fireworks display is but the start.
And I’ve got some concluding thoughts below, but I will say here’s where everything starts getting really funny.
It’s funny, very much so, but what puts it alongside It’s a Wonderful Life is the similar exploration of what really matters in life, from a slightly different angle; less about our personal good deeds (though kindness given with no expectation of return is a theme) so much as what really matters in the end.
I was thinking the ‘follow your bliss’ philosophy, which has some deep foundational cracks, might be a running worldview in here, but somehow it doesn’t quite tip over into that.
We all have a part to fill in this world and sometimes we won’t much like the job we have to do to put bread on the table, but we just need to stick it out. At the same time, we want to make sure our desire for pain free security isn’t keeping us from being daring -- from being risk takers (which, coincidentally, the ‘big bosses and businessmen’ do all the time, so that’s a funny rabbit trail thought).
It’s about constantly evaluating that what you’re spending your time on really matters and (I’ve thought about this in terms of raising children) don’t put off till ‘someday’ what God has put in your heart to do -- if He’s given you a specific gift, if He’s pointing you in a new, scary direction, follow Him -- and do it with all your might. For starters, don’t get stuck in a narrow, hemmed in, familiar box. Have multiple interests, develop that zest for living, try things out for the fun of it.
Grandpa Vanderhof’s the star of the picture and much of this conflict is bound up in Mr. Kirby Sr.’s character.
There's the romance of course, but as a whole it’s more about family dynamics and communication and honesty and loyalty, and what kind of foundation and inheritance you’re laying up for your children.
So yes, it’s a fun family movie, very clean, and a great way to bring up and discuss all these topics.
Come the grand finale I won’t tell you exactly how it all works out, but we do get a precursor to It’s a Wonderful Life as the whole neighborhood shows up and pitches in to help out Grandpa.
And finally everything ends up back in its proper place -- only with more faces round the dinner table.
It’s definitely a classic everyone should see. Seriously, if you haven’t already, find some time between now and New Year’s and watch it! ;)
Reviewed for The Sixth Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.