Curiously echoing Major Barbara (notably the captain of industry/munitions thread), it’s not difficult to understand why Frank Capra’s brilliant realization of the play by George Kaufman and Moss Hart—expertly adapted for the screen by Robert Riskin—won the 1938 Best Picture Academy Award.
At the core of everything is the truly absurdist world of Martin Vanderhof (given a delightfully droll performance by Lionel Barrymore) and his household of eccentrics (a.k.a. free-thinking Lilies of the Field): Widower Vanderhof led the way 35 years ago having come to the realization that work wasn’t fun so dropped out of the mainstream to smell the roses while nurturing family and friends; daughter Penny (Spring Byington at her madcap best) gaily abandons her lack of talent for oil on canvas to take up playwriting when a typewriter is mistakenly delivered to the crowded household); petite granddaughter Essie (vivaciously rendered by Ann Miller) dances up a storm—frequently accompanied by husband Ed’s (film début of Dub Taylor) vibraphone; in the basement the full-service workshop has become a fireworks factory for Penny’s spouse (Samuel Hinds) and former iceman, DiPinna (Halliway Hobbs)—deftly setting the stage for the running “Home Sweet Home” gag as the framed motto hits the deck with every test blast.
Frequent visitor comes in the thick-accented form of Essie’s ballet master, Kolenkhov (Mischa Auer has the rare gift of going far over the top and still get away with it!). Newcomer to the zany crew is former clerk suddenly inventor-on-his-own-time Poppins (Donald meek is just so), who—like the Pied Piper in the personage of Vanderhof—abandons his boring post at Kirby and Co. (the firm is also after Vanderhof’s house to complete a massive real estate/weapons deal) for the lure of doing what he wants to do rather than what he has to do.
Perhaps the most “normal” of the motley crew is Alice (the ever-radiant Jean Arthur) who also works as a personal secretary at Kirby and Co. But as the film opens, her duties are getting a bit too personal because her boss (and the owner’s son and heir), Tony (James Stewart polishing his wry delivery and characteristic mannerisms: notably hands-in-trousers’-pockets at key moments), wants his Girl Friday to take more than dictation and become his bride.
Keeping the herd fed and watered are Lillian Yarbo as Rheba and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson as Donald, their presence is far more than just token “colour” balance: when the dance floor fills, everything really begins to move with the greatest of ease.
The coming engagement mixed in with the desire to purchase threaten to tear apart the nut house (literally, as witness the hoity toity restaurant scene) due to the unsuitability of Alice and her kin for the ruthless Pa Kirby (pompously done by Edward Arnold) and his condescending wife (Mary Forbes, always happy to faint on demand).
The first real showdown between the clans is also the plot’s weakest link. A joint family dinner is sabotaged by the groom-to-be hoping to let his folks see the true side of his in-laws-in-waiting. The whole episode backfires as much as the fireworks, landing everyone in the slammer, no less.
No worries: the kind-hearted judge (Harry Davenport) shows unusual compassion (compared with the hard-hearted Kirbys senior) and sets up a massive display of what money can’t buy as Vanderhof’s fine is paid for by the love and respect of his friends.
By journey’s end, there won’t be a dry eye in the house as the asylum returns to its definitely-not-normal state. But more than just a stellar cast and fine writing, it’s Capra’s unerring sense of ebb and flow that raises this film to the highest level. Few today would dare let their characters’ reaction shots to key situations/revelations linger as long, silently reinforcing the many lessons learned along the way to understanding just what matters in life. JWR