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Happy Lunacies

By Jerry L. Crawford

The coveted Pulitzer Prize rarely goes to a comedy, but, in 1937, Messrs. Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman won the award with unanimous popular ratification for You Can’t Take It with You. The play fulfills what Dr. Samuel Jonson considered the chief aim of comedy: keeping an audience continually merry. Wildly funny as it is, the script is based on a text in the New Testament: “For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out (I Timothy 6:7).

You Can’t Take It with You was originally produced at the Booth Theatre in New York City on Monday night, December 14, 1936, presented by Sam H. Harris, noted producer. The play was staged by George S. Kaufman and featured Henry Travers as Grandpa Vanderhof and Josephine Hull as Penelope Sycamore, with such gifted supporting actors as Frank Conlan and George Tobias (as Mr. De Pinna and Boris Kolenkhov). On December 15, in his column for the New York Evening Post, distinguished critic, John Mason Brown, reported: “In a world in which the sanity usually associated with sunshine is sadly overvalued, You Can’t Take It with You is something to be prized. It is moonstruck, almost from beginning to end. It is blessed with all the happiest lunacies Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman have been able to contribute to it. The Sycamore family is the most gloriously mad group of contented eccentrics the modern theatre has yet had the good fortune to shadow.”

The play had a run of 837 performances and has been consistently produced for fifty-eight years, ranging from high schools and colleges to community theatres, regional professional theatres, and Broadway revival. (Sam Harris sold You Can’t Take It with You to Columbia Pictures for a record price of $200,000, and Frank Capra directed a stellar Hollywood cast including James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold, and Spring Byington. The film was also a hit success.) The team of Kaufman and Hart remains one of the American theatre’s most cherished icons; they collaborated on such comedic triumphs as Once in a Lifetime(1930), Merrily We Roll Along (1934), I’d Rather Be Right (1937), The Fabulous Invalid (1938), The American Way (1939),The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939), and George Washington Slept Here (1940). Each author wrote other successes alone or with other collaborators (witness the 1993 Utah Shakespeare Festival comic romp by Kaufman and Edna Ferber, The Royal Family [written in 1927]).

In 1936 America was still in the Great Depression and the world was only three years away from World War II. The story of a family living near Columbia University who managed not only to survive in those terrible times but to enjoy life hugely appealed to thousands of playgoers both here and abroad. Its very absurdities and improbabilities endeared the play to them even more. Eager to forget the bad news at home and the ever-increasing threats from abroad, playgoers found this a kind of poor man’s Shangri-la on Morningside Heights. (Could it be that we relish the play today for comparable if not similar reasons?)
Coupled with the pleasure derived from observing the antics of a harebrained but happy family living on practically nothing a week was the delight in viewing another cleverly wrought product of one of the most expert writing teams in American dramatic history.

Neither Kaufman nor Hart made any pretense at being philosophers or creating serious or complex themes. They were unashamedly humorists—entertainers! You Can’t Take It with You is an example of clever theatrical craftsmanship, of strikingly funny situations, of dialogue that is humorous and stage worthy, and of a view of life that may have been in the hearts of many who were living in the unhappy days that had not yet seen the last of the Great Depression and were shortly to witness the beginning of World War II.

What really makes You Can’t Take It with You special and a pure delight is the array of unique characters that populate its action. Here are non-conformists—1930s hippies. Each one pursues a private imperative, yet connects with the ensemble. Kaufman probably drew heavily upon his own family for prototypes of Grandpa Vanderhof, Penelope, and Essie. Legend has it that Kaufman’s father, sister, and niece provided the impetus for those characters. It is to Kaufman’s credit that no hint of sentimentality is involved in those creations. Matters of romance and sentiment necessary to the story were undeniably provided by Hart. For example, it appears that Kaufman had nothing to do with act 1, scene 2 and that early sentimental moments in act 3 are strictly the work of Hart. In fact, much of the material disliked by a few critics seemed to have been written by Hart who deployed a gentler brand of humor than his caustic collaborator. Nevertheless, it is the subtle blending of viewpoint and style throughout the play which elevates all of it to stage worthiness. When the playwrights were asked, “Which lines were yours?” theatre lore has it that each author denied knowledge of line creations. Kaufman was famous for saying, “We both thought of it.”

A personal memory: I once played the role of Ed inYou Can’t Take It with You for a professional summer repertory theatre. I was driven to distraction trying to learn to play Beethoven on the xylophone! Finally, I mastered enough of the material and the instrument to serve the play. There followed an amazing discovery. Ed Carmichael is supposed to play as badly as I did! That was the point—the very spine of the character. Kaufman and Hart knew that each of us participates in something for the sheer joy of it. Success and accomplishment become irrelevant in the face of the happiness resulting from trying to fulfill a small, personal dream (skill and training aside). A great and serious lesson emerges, one which underscores the subtle solemnity of the Biblical title of this master play.

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