I hope you've had a pleasant holiday, and I welcome your return to STAGE WHISPERS. Obviously, I took the month of January off...but I'm happy to be back...so let's get started.
I encountered a few false starts determining a topic for this post. American Playwrights of the 1930s & '40s with emphasis on Clifford Odets and Arthur Miller? I don't think so. The History of the Group Theatre? Tabled for later. The WPA Theatre Project in the Great Depression? I gave up trying to compare theater then with theater now. Instead, what surfaced were three enduring comedies written and produced between the middle of the Great Depression and the end of World War II, which (a) had lengthy Broadway runs, (b) have had frequent revivals over the years, and (c) are still popular today.
Their commonalities are obvious: All three fall delightfully into the category of family entertainment. Each plot revolves around lovable but eccentric characters; each play ran for several years on Broadway; each won a slew of awards; and each was made into a popular motion picture, garnering more awards; and each film has become a popular classic.
YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, a comedy in three acts by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, debuted at New York's Booth Theater December 14, 1936 — smack dab in the middle of the Great Depression, and a mere three years away from World War II — and continued to play for 837 performances. It earned Kaufman & Hart the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The film version was produced by Columbia Pictures and directed by the inimitable Frank Capra, who was rewarded with two Academy Awards — Best Director and Best Picture. It was the highest grossing film of 1938.
The characters of You Can't Take It With You, in order of their appearance, are:
Penelope "Penny" Vanderhof Sycamore — daughter of Martin Vanderhof, wife of Paul Sycamore, and mother of two daughters — Alice and Essie. Penny has two hobbies which occupy most of her time: writing not-very-good potboilers (because a typewriter was delivered to their home by mistake a few years back), and painting not-very-good pictures (because she has a houseful of willing models). Penny is a loving wife and mother, and is always focused on making sure everyone is happy.
The superb character actresses who played this role — Josephine Hull on stage and Spring Byington in the film — had long and distinguished careers. Ms. Hull's Broadway career spanned 50 years before she took some of her best roles to film. Ms. Byington was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, but did not win. She was a regular on Broadway before she segued to motion pictures, then to radio during WWII. She is best remembered for her 8-year run on radio and television as the star of the popular sitcom December Bride.
Essie Sycamore Carmichael — wife of Ed Carmichael, daughter of Paul & Penny Sycamore, granddaughter of Martin, and sister of Alice. Essie dreams of being a ballerina, and has studied dance with Boris Kolenkhov for eight years. She's gone as far as she can go, and is still a really terrible dancer. However, as a hobby Essie makes excellent candy, and husband Ed sells every batch she makes. Dancer-actress Paula Trueman played Essie on stage.
In the film, a great dancer, Ann Miller, cleverly disguised her dancing talent and enacted the awkwardness of the not-so-great dancer, Essie.
Rheba — live-in maid and cook to the Vanderhof-Sycamore family. Making her Broadway debut, Ruth Attaway played this role on stage. Over the next 40 years, she appeared in many Broadway, off-Broadway and summer stock productions, and was with the Repertory Society of Lincoln Center from 1964 to 1967. She also performed on radio and television, and was in several films, among them Porgy and Bess, Raintree County and Being There, yet I could find no image of Ruth Attaway.
In the film the role of Rheba was played by Lillian Yarbo. Near the end of Part One, I will post a couple of large group photos showing every member of the film cast. They contain the only images of Lillian Yarbo that I could find.
Paul Sycamore — husband of Penny, father of Essie and Alice, and son-in-law of Martin. With the aid of his assistant, Mr. DePinna, Paul manufactures fireworks in the basement. As a hobby, he tinkers with erector sets. In the original stage production, Paul was played by Frank Wilcox, who went on to a long film and television career.
In the film, the role of Paul Sycamore was played by popular stage and screen character actor, Samuel S. Hinds.
Mr. DePinna — a former ice man who, one day a long time ago, came inside to speak to Paul, and has been there ever since. He helps create the fireworks, and moonlights as a model for Penny the painter. In the play, he was enacted by Irish-American actor Frank Conlan, whose Broadway career ran from 1901 to 1944.
In the film version, Mr. DePinna was played by familiar character actor Halliwell Hobbes.
Ed Carmichael — xylophone-playing, candy-selling husband of Essie, and son-in-law of Paul and Penny Sycamore. Hobbies are important to members of this unique household, and Ed's hobby is printing. He prints their dinner menus, as well as any phrase he hears that sounds good to him, even if he doesn't understand it, which often he doesn't. He is inclined to insert his printed phrases into the candy boxes he distributes for Essie.
On stage, Ed was played by handsome George Heller. Yes, the very George Heller whose successful radio career prompted his almost single-handed founding of the American Federation of Radio Artists (AFRA), later to be known as the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists (AFTRA). He headed the organization for many years.
In the film, Ed was played by young Dub Taylor, who went on to become an identifiable character actor in a slew of western films and television series.
Donald — boyfriend of Rheba, and household handyman and errand-runner. It's unclear whether Donald also lives under Grandpa Vanderhof's roof, but it is clear that he's at home among the family. In the stage production, Donald was played by American actor Oscar Polk, best known for his portrayal as the servant "Pork" in Gone With the Wind. He died on January 4, 1949 — not yet 50 years old — when he was fatally struck by a taxi cab as he stepped off a curb in Times Square.
In the film, Donald was portrayed by the familiar sandy-throated comic actor, Eddie Anderson, best remembered for his long-running gig as Rochester — the butler on the Jack Benny Radio Show, and the valet on the Jack Benny Television Show.
Martin Vanderhof — father of Penny, father-in-law of Paul, grandfather of Alice and Essie — is usually referred to as "Grandpa" by one and all. His philosophy of life is simply "follow your heart and enjoy yourself." As a result, he's a happy old man who's seemingly without a care in the world, despite never having paid a cent of income tax — because (a) he doesn't believe in it, and (b) he's certain the government wouldn't spend it wisely if he did pay it.
In the stage play, Grandpa Vanderhof was played by that lovable old character actor Henry Travers, whom you may remember as Jimmy Stewart's guardian angel Clarence in the film It's A Wonderful Life.
Grandpa Vanderhof was played in the film by that venerable thespian, Lionel Barrymore. Unlike his siblings, Lionel never wanted to be a stage or film actor. However, he loved to perform on radio, and did so at every opportunity.
Alice Sycamore — sister of Essie, daughter of Paul & Penny, granddaughter of Martin, and the only so-called "normal" member of the household. She is engaged to Anthony J. "Tony" Kirby, Jr., for whom she works in his father's firm. She loves her family, but there are moments when their eccentricities embarrass her. Usually she manages to control such situations, but when Tony brings his parents to dinner the night before they're expected, she sees that his stodgy family will never accept her as their daughter-in-law.
In the stage play, Alice was played by the beautiful and talented Margot Stevenson. Member of a theatrical family, Ms. Stevenson enjoyed a long Broadway career (1932 - 1966) as both an actress and a stage manager. She married a wonderful character actor, Val Avery. Their 56-year marriage ended with Mr. Avery's death, just this past December. She is 96.
Jean Arthur, a popular film star of the 1930s and 1940s, played Alice in the movie. Miss Arthur was, and will probably always be known as "the quintessential comedic leading lady." The queen of "screwball comedy," no actress was more closely identified with that genre than she.
Wilbur C. Henderson — a representative of the IRS who comes to collect the taxes Grandpa's never paid. No matter how many times it's explained to him, Agent Henderson cannot comprehend why Mr. Vanderhof refuses to pay. In the stage play, he was portrayed by Hugh Rennie, whose stage career included acting, directing and producing. He went on to a successful film career, as well.
In the motion picture, Charles Lane played Agent Henderson. Lane was a fixture in Frank Capra's films, and was also a favorite of Lucille Ball, who enjoyed playing her zany TV comedy characters off of his no-nonsense authority figures.
Tony Kirby — fiancé of Alice Sycamore, son of Mr. and Mrs. Anthony J. Kirby, Sr., and vice-president of the large and successful development firm of Kirby & Son. Unlike his fashionable and pompous parents, Tony is easy-going and unpretentious. He once dreamed of being a scientist, and does not want to become a stuffed shirt like his dad. He likes Alice's family, and envies their love and care for one another.
In the stage play, Tony was the Broadway breakout role for Jess Barker, who afterward worked in three short-lived productions before moving to Hollywood where he had a lackluster career. He seems to be best remembered for his 10-year marriage to Susan Hayward.
The late, great Jimmy Stewart played Tony in the motion picture. Mr. Stewart's seven decades in Hollywood films made him one of the most recognizable faces and voices in the world. He won numerous acting awards, but I've long had the impression that he was most proud of his military career, in both war and peace, rising to the rank of Brigadier General in the United States Air Force Reserve.
Boris Kolenkhov — a Russian emigre and Essie's dance instructor, Kolenkhov doesn't actually live in the Vanderhof-Sycamore household, but he gives Essie her ballet lesson there almost every day — always arriving in time for dinner. He speaks often of knowing other prominent Russians now working in New York, especially his friend the Grand Duchess Olga Katrina.
Kolenkhov was played on stage by the popular character actor, George Tobias, who enjoyed a 15-year career on Broadway before becoming a successful motion picture and television actor. He was enticed back to Broadway in 1955 to play Commissar Markovitch in the highly successful 14-month run of the musical comedy Silk Stockings, a good call that introduced him to a whole new generation of theater-goers. You may also remember him as Abner Kravitz in the iconic television series, Bewitched.
In the film, Kolenkhov was played by Russian-born American actor, Mischa Auer — actually, Mischa Ounskowsky, but he renamed himself Auer after his grandfather, the violinist Leopold Auer. Those of us who grew up in the 1930s and '40s enjoyed Mischa Auer in numerous films, and in the '50s he came into our homes when he began appearing in episodes of major television-theater series.
Gay Wellington — an alcoholic actress whom Penny Sycamore met on a bus and invited home to read one of her plays. Ms. Wellington makes her appearance at the beginning of Act 2, proceeds to get very drunk, takes a look at Grandpa's pet snakes, and passes out cold. Ms. Wellington was played on stage by Hungarian dancer/actress Mitzi Hajos. She had truncated her professional name to just "Mitzi" during the 1920s and early '30s, when she was appearing on Broadway in one musical after another, but by the time she played Gay Wellington, she was again using the Hajos surname.
The role of Gay Wellington was not included in the film script.
Anthony W. Kirby, Sr. — husband of Miriam Kirby and father of Tony, he is the stereotype of the self-important corporate CEO who rolls roughshod over his family as well as his employees...and isn't above a little subterfuge in his business dealings. He sits on numerous corporate boards and frequently invokes the names of posh clubs and societies to which he belongs. He is, in short, a stuffed shirt, and a very unhappy man.
In the play, Mr. Kirby was played by William J. Kelly, who isn't mentioned in any of my reference materials. The Internet Broadway Data Base (IBDB) shows that he appeared in only eleven Broadway productions between 1907 and 1949. In the film, however, the role of Mr. Kirby was enacted by the superb and long familiar character actor, Edward Arnold.
Miriam Kirby — wife of Anthony J. Kirby, Sr. and mother of Tony, and the stereotype of that era's monied, class-conscious corporate wife. In short, she's a snob, and can't understand why she doesn't get the respect to which she is entitled by virtue of her exalted station in life. Needless to say, she is offended by the Vanderhof-Sycamore household.
In the play, Mrs. Kirby was played by Virginia Hammond, whose Broadway career spanned 40 years. It is said that she became a character actress at a very young age, and remained a character actress throughout her career. She also played in many films in the 1910s, '20s & '30s, yet I found nary a picture of her.
The movie version of Mrs. Kirby was enacted by the regal beauty, Mary Forbes, who made over 130 films from 1919 to her retirement in 1958.
G-Man 1, G-Man 2 and G-Man 3 — Federal agents who show up to investigate Ed because of some of the so-called propaganda he's been printing and putting into the candy boxes he delivers for Essie. In the stage play, they were played by Franklin Heller, who was a Broadway actor from 1935 to 1944, then went on to a long film career; Ralph Holmes, who suffered from traumatic stress after his wartime experiences, and whose tragic life ended in suicide at the age of 30; and George Leach, a Broadway character actor for 35 years. These were uncredited roles in the film, although later it was discovered that one of them was played by Ward Bond in what was possibly his first acting role. He went on to an enormously popular career in films, always playing macho characters. These may jog your memory:
Grand Duchess Olga Katrina — a member of the Russian royal family who, with her Uncle Sergei (the Grand Duke), fled to the U.S. just before the revolution. Olga is a friend of Boris Kolenkhov, and works as a waitress at Childs Restaurant. Her Uncle Sergei works as an elevator operator.
On stage, Olga Katrina was portrayed by Anna Lubowe, but no images exist. As for the film makers, they eliminated that role entirely.
However, the film script added three characters to the cast: One was an uncredited role as Mr. Kirby's administrative assistant which was actually played by not-yet-famed character actor Ian Wolfe, whose film career included more than 270 films from 1934 to 1990.
Another was billed merely as Ramsey, played by English character actor H. B. Warner, whose long career in American films spanned 42 years (1914-1956).
The other was Mr. Poppins — quite a nice standout role for that lovable character actor Donald Meek. He scored as the nervous little man who worked in the accounting department of Kirby & Son. There he met Mr. Vanderhof who told him he should do only what he wanted to do. As Mr. Poppins had an amazing talent for creating clever mechanical toys...well...that's what he wanted to do, and he settled quickly into the Vanderhof-Sycamore bedlam. Mr. Meek had been a stage actor in his native Scotland before coming to the U.S., where he played in many American movies.
Be sure to click on the above picture to enlarge it. You'll be able to identify every actor and read every signature. BTW, that's Frank Capra seated on the stepladder.
You Can't Take It With You has been revived on Broadway five times: 1945 at the City Center (17 performances); 1966 at the Lyceum Theatre (239 performances); 1967 at the Lyceum Theatre (16 performances); 1983 at the Plymouth Theatre, then the Royale Theatre (312 performances); and finally in the summer of 2009 at the Lyceum Theatre, using this new logo:
Beyond Broadway, however, You Can't Take It With You has been produced countless times by regional and community theaters across the country. I can't hazard a guess at how many thousands of productions have been staged over the last 70 years — a staggering number, I'm sure.
Thank you, Messrs. Kaufman and Hart for writing such timeless material, and Mr. Capra for so beautifully capturing it for all time.