Come and Get It (1936):  Bad Adaptation, Great Film

Frances Farmer and Edward Arnold around the gambling table in Come and Get It (1936)
Come and Get It 1936 Opening Banner

Sandwiched between Cimarron and Saratoga Trunk, Edna Ferber wrote Come and Get It, a novel criticizing the American logging industry of the 1880’s and detailing what she called “the rape of America.”

By this Ferber meant the non-sustainable practices of cutting down trees without replanting, polluting rivers and streams, and using barely legal tactics to scoop up huge tracts of land.  (The same illegal tactics the robber barons used to steal the farm of Clint Maroon’s parents in Saratoga Trunk.) 

Thus, the provocative Come and Get It title refers to the trees—and the wealth—there for the taking in the lush and seemingly endless American forests.

Ferber sold the film rights to producer Samuel Goldwyn, extracting a promise that he would make a prestigious “issue” film that got to the heart of her story. 

Goldwyn had every intention of honoring this promise, until fate—and Howard Hawks—intervened.

Goldwyn assigned Hawks—never known for “issue” films—to direct Come and Get It, with the plan to keep a close eye and tight leash on the independent director who had a habit of bending source material to his version of the story.

During the filming of Come and Get It, Goldwyn was hospitalized due to problems with both his gall bladder and appendix.  While Goldwyn recuperated, Hawks began a wholesale rewrite of the script.  His film begins with thirty minutes of impressive footage showcasing how trees are felled and then sent down the river to the saw mill using dynamite and the flow of river water.

After that brief nod to the logging industry, Hawks introduces us to Barney Glasgow (Edward Arnold), a big, gregarious, and ambitious lumberjack.  He’s clutch in a barroom brawl (and we get to see a mighty one) but he’s also got big plans for his future.  He pitches a partnership to his boss based on a legally dubious plan to gobble up Wisconsin land for their logging operation.

Barney falls in love with Lotta Morgan (Frances Farmer), a beautiful barmaid he meets on the night of the aforementioned brawl.  He teases marriage, but in the end he throws her over to marry the boss’ daughter and secure his rise up the logging ladder.

Walter Brennan, Frances Farmer, and Edward Arnold in Come and Get It (1936)
Walter Brennan, Frances Farmer, Edward Arnold

Of her own novel, Ferber wrote many years later that it was, “about 70 per cent good.  In it I committed a serious error.  A little more than halfway through the book I killed the character called Barney Glasgow, and with his death the backbone of the book was broken.  He was the most vital and engaging person in the story.”

Howard Hawks didn’t make the same mistake.  He knew Barney Glasgow was the heart of the story, and he intended to keep the gregarious lumberjack turned magnate onscreen until the final frame.

We fast-forward a few decades to find Barney a rich and successful paper mill tycoon.  He butts heads with his son, who wants more sustainable logging practices, dotes on his daughter, and has a cordial if not loving relationship with his wife.

He has everything he’s ever wanted—except Lotta, the love of his life who (reluctantly) married his best friend (Walter Brennan) after he threw her over.

His life is upended when he meets the now-deceased Lotta’s daughter, also named Lotta (and also played by Frances Farmer), the spitting image the woman Barney loved all those years ago.

The rich and powerful Barney makes an absolute fool of himself in pursuit of young Lotta.  He gives her father a job in his company so that they can move closer to him.  He showers her with expensive clothes, buys her an apartment, pays for her education. 

He’s infatuated with now-Lotta, confusing her with the woman he once knew.  And confusing himself with the much younger man he once was.

Lotta is at first flattered, then increasingly alarmed and eventually repulsed by Barney’s attentions.  She fears retribution against her father if she outright rejects Barney.

Frances Farmer and Edward Arnold in Come and Get It (1936)
Frances Farmer, Edward Arnold

When she falls in love with Barney’s son Richard (Joel McCrea), the film has completely transformed from a critique of the logging industry into a highly entertaining yarn about an old man and his son being in love with the same woman that bears little resemblance to Ferber’s novel.

At this point of the film, I’m on the edge of my seat—how will Lotta manage this lecherous patron who has given her family so much?  What will Richard do when he finds out that his father has been making advances on the woman he hopes to marry?

What will Barney do when he realizes Lotta loves not him but his son?

Frances Farmer and Joel McCrea in Come and Get It 1936
Frances Farmer, Joel McCrea

It was about this time in the filming that Samuel Goldwyn recovered enough from his gastrointestinal issues that he first asked—then demanded when he met resistance—to see Hawks’ footage.

When he saw what Hawks had done to Ferber’s material, he blew a gasket.  Hawks felt that the second half of Ferber’s novel was “lousy,” and he’d made it into a good story for film.  They had a heated argument, and depending on who’s telling the story, Goldwyn either fired Hawks or Hawks quit. 

Either way, Hawks was off to RKO to make Bringing Up Baby with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, and Goldwyn was left with an unfinished picture.

Samuel Goldwyn called in William Wyler to finish directing the film.  William Wyler would go on to have a stellar career making prestige films, including Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Heiress (1949), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Roman Holiday (1953), and Ben-Hur (1959).  He would collect three Academy Awards for best directing and twelve nominations throughout his long career.

Had Wyler directed Come and Get It from the start, I’m certain he would’ve better captured the spirit of Ferber’s novel.  But I’m not sure he would’ve made a more entertaining film.

Regardless, Wyler was loathe to finish the work of another man, and only did so after Goldwyn threatened to sue him for breach of contract if he refused.  He ended the film but kept Hawks’ vision intact.

In the final moments of the film, father and son get into a physical altercation over Lotta.  She breaks them apart, begging Richard to stop hitting his father, and calling Barney, “just an old man.”

The words land harder than any punch he’s ever taken.  He suddenly sees himself through Lotta’s eyes—not a legitimate rival for her affection, but a pathetic old pervert.

His ambition has brought him money, wealth, and power.  But it never brought him either Lotta, and it can’t preserve his youth.

Wyler never counted Come and Get It as one of his films; he’d completed only 14 days of shooting vs. Hawks’ 42.  He fought against Goldwyn’s desire to remove Hawks’ name completely from the film.  Wyler insisted they share screen credit (though he would have preferred his name left off entirely) and insisted Hawks’ name come first.

Come and Get It is an unjustly forgotten film; perhaps because of the two directors, perhaps because the stars aren’t as well remembered today.  And although it doesn’t tell Ferber’s story, it does tell a good one.  Hawks wasn’t one to moralize, but he knew how to keep an audience’s attention.  Watching Barney throw over one Lotta only to leer at another is a fascinating study of human behavior.

It’s got a quick pace, a good cast, and Edward Arnold nails his part as Barney Glasgow.  Perhaps due to Wyler, the somewhat zany story comes to a poignant end.

For future Jeopardy players, take note that Walter Brennan won the first ever Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Swan, Barney’s best friend and young Lotta’s father.

And what did Ferber think of this fast and loose adaptation?

Across two memoirs, she never once mentions the film.  She had no problem praising or criticizing the films made of her books, so we’ll all just have to draw our own conclusions regarding her silence.

Come and Get It Verdict:  Give It A shot

Sources

  • Ferber, Edna.  A Peculiar Treasure.  1939.
  • Madsen, Axel. William Wyler:  The Authorized Biography.  2015.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Frances Farmer and Edward Arnold around the gambling table in Come and Get It 1936.

The Good Life

#20 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Director Frank Capra on the set of You Can't Take It With You (1938)
James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Director Frank Capra on the set of You Can’t Take It With You
You Can't Take It With You (1938) opening banner

Frank Capra was on a roll.  Starting in 1934 with It Happened One Night, he won the Best Director Oscar in three out of the next five years.  In 1938, he won his third and final Oscar with the ensemble comedy You Can’t Take It With You.  He also began to cement his legacy as a director who perfected a tone in his films that celebrated the best parts of the American dream and gave audiences wholesome and upbeat films to take their minds off their Depression troubles.

Capra was still working under Harry Cohn at Columbia, turning out critical and commercial successes without the benefit of the huge budgets and roster of stars his competition enjoyed over at Paramount and MGM.  In You Can’t Take It With You, Capra managed this by pulling sparkling performances by both young and up-and-coming actors and old favorites.

You Can’t Take It With You started out as a 1936 play by George Kaufmann and Moss Hart.  Capra and writer Robert Riskin expanded the play for the screen.

The film’s initial setup is simple enough—ruthless, greedy banker Anthony Kirby is planning to buy up all the real estate around a competitor’s factory to prevent expansion and put his competition out of business.  It’s an underhanded plan, but it is spoiled by the one eccentric old man who refuses to sell his family home.

Lionel Barrymore plays Grandpa Vanderhof, the lone holdout and benevolent patriarch of the eccentric Vanderhof family, a group of misfits that eschew convention in favor of spending their days—and thus their lives—doing exactly as they choose.  This includes daughter Penny Sycamore writing bad plays all day just because someone once left a typewriter at their house, her husband setting off fireworks in the basement, and granddaughter Essie dancing ballet in the living room, despite her teacher’s continued assertions that, “Confidentially, she stinks!”

Kirby’s dilemma is simple, and unsolvable:  He is a man who throws money at every problem, and the Vanderhofs can’t be bought.

Grandpa Vanderhof refuses to sell for the simple reason that he doesn’t want to leave the home filled with happy memories, and his refusal to sell protects the rest of the neighborhood from being evicted from their homes.

This clash of ideas about what makes a good life—Kirby has more money than he could ever spend but lacks fulfilling relationships with his wife and son, and treats his employees like dirt, while Grandpa Vanderhof lacks wealth and status but has the love and respect of family and friends—is the heart of the film.

Lionel Barrymore as patriarch Grandpa Vanderhof in You Can't Take It With You (1938)
Lionel Barrymore as patriarch Grandpa Vanderhof

Capra thickens the plot, of course.  The life philosophies of two old men might be interesting, but a Hollywood film needs youth, beauty, and romance.

In his first starring role James Stewart plays Anthony’s son Tony, the reluctant vice president and heir apparent in his father’s company.  Jean Arthur, also in an early starring role, plays Grandpa Vanderhof’s loving and slightly less crazy granddaughter Alice, who is a stenographer at the Kirby’s bank.

Unbeknownst to both old men, Tony and Alice are in love. 

And we’re off.

There is an inevitable clash of cultures when the Kirbys and Vanderhofs meet, a plot twist where Grandpa Vanderhof nearly loses the house but is saved by the senior Kirby’s dawning realization that Grandpa Vanderhof is the richer man, surrounded by people who love and respect him.  And of course, Tony temporarily loses Alice.

Don’t worry, he gets her back again.

It’s amazing to me that this film was nominated for seven Oscars and won Best Picture and Best Director.  Not because I think it’s undeserving—it certainly is (and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Barrymore wouldn’t have been out of line)—but a picture like this wouldn’t even have been considered for a nomination today.  It’s a comedy with a message so pure and positive it borders on corny.

Its complete lack of cynicism would invalidate its legitimacy in the minds of today’s Oscar voters.  As a critique, it says more about the trend of the Oscars than it does about Capra’s film.

You Can’t Take It With You also serves as a changing of the guard in terms of Hollywood’s leading men.  Though he would act for fifteen more years, at sixty Lionel Barrymore’s best years and films are behind him.  He’s on crutches throughout the film, and this is explained by an accident, but the truth is in real life he was plagued by painful arthritis that would increasingly trouble him the rest of his life.

Barrymore is the heart of the film, and he gets all the best lines.  Yet he’s clearly passing the torch—however reluctantly—to James Stewart.  

Only three years into his nearly sixty year career, James Stewart is already oozing charisma and speaking in his inimitable stutter-step accent.  His wide-eyed Tony is head over heels in love with Alice and her crazy family.  Alice knows it is a bad idea to fall in love with someone whose family will never accept her, but really, what woman could resist Jimmy Stewart when he turns up the charm?

You Can’t Take It With You isn’t a perfect film.  It’s a little too long, and sometimes the antics of the Vanderhof family become irritating.

But honestly, let’s not quibble.  This is a movie made to distract you from your troubles.  You munch on popcorn while watching young people fall in love and old people coming around to the idea that love triumphs over money, and that the American Dream is alive and well.

What could be better than that?

Verdict for You Can't Take It With You (1938):  Film Buffs Only

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Director Frank Capra on the set of You Can't Take It With You (1938)