You Can’t Take It With You opened on December 14, 1936 at the Booth Theatre. It became a phenomenal success playing 837 performances and winning the Pulitzer prize for drama in 1937. The film version of the play won the Academy award for Best Picture and Best Director (Frank Capra) in 1938.
Kaufman and Hart wrote in a harsh political climate: The United States was in the grips of the Depression and an estimated 25-30% of the workforce was unemployed in 1933. Students graduating from college had very few career prospects. A popular ditty of the thirties, “Ode to Higher Education,” contains the lines,
“I sing in praise of college
Of M.A.s and PhDs,
But in Pursuit of Knowledge
We are starving by degrees”
It is in this atmosphere that Grandpa goes to Columbia’s commencement and describes it with such a mocking, patronizing tone.
Theatres were hit hard by the Depression. Only 80 new plays appeared between 1939 and 1940, compared to the 280 that were written between 1927 and 1928. In response to the difficult economic times, producers often chose plays that were “safe” and frequently escapist. On the other hand, many of the plays funded by the government through the New Deal dealt with the troubles of the unemployed and working class and were accused of being socialist. In order to create truly risky or political theatre, theatre artists had to create their own companies and fund their own projects, which was how The Group Theatre (with members such as Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Elia Kazan) was created. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the mainstream theatre before the Depression had not been particularly risky: Broadway comedy at the beginning of the 20th century was generally of a blander, lower sort. Broadway producers needed to tour their shows in order to turn a profit: Plays were selected for their appeal to the “hinterlands” and the question “How will it play in Peoria?” was one of true consequence.
Shortly after WWI, the economics of successful touring became impossible. Costs increased and competition from the vaudeville chains and silent movies cut into profits. Broadway producers resolved to get out of touring and, once freed from their obligation to be wholesome, began to produce plays that would appeal to a New York audience. Plays, as Booth Tarkington would eventually refer to them “for wise guys.” Broadway was soon experiencing a remarkable renaissance of high comedy, born out of the “safe” requirements of producers and the public’s desire for spirit-lifting entertainment.
The plays of this remarkable era sang the splendors of New York for audiences of New York and celebrated a city they saw coming into its own as the capital of the world. Before this American comedy boom, high comedy was mainly imported from Europe and concerned the strict class systems of playwrights such as Congreve, Marivaux, and Wilde. Now, in a rare historical confluence, a marvelous collection of urban wits came together with a New York audience that was capable of appreciating their high-spirits and intelligence.
Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You, though quintessentially a New York play, was written entirely in Beverly Hills after Hart suggested the idea during a stay in Hollywood. The two homesick writers wrote the play, originally titled “Grandpa’s Other Snake”, and brought it back to the East Coast to try it out in Philadelphia before finally bringing it to its rightful home in New York in 1936. It seemed to be exactly what city-dwellers of the time needed: The play offered a recipe to beat the depression blues and, in its disarming and amusing way, offered up a philosophy that is still attractive today: Life is too short to waste on meaningless obligatory things and clichéd though it may be, the best things in life are free.
In its non-aggressive, non-judgmental (and non-denominational) way, You Can’t Take It With You speaks directly to the child in us all- and tells us that it’s all right to value playtime and it’s a fine thing to follow your dreams.
GEORGE S. KAUFMAN (1889-1961) was perhaps the greatest figure of Broadway’s greatest era. Born in Pittsburgh, Kaufman came to New York to be a journalist, eventually working at the New York Times drama desk from 1917 to 1930. Before becoming a reporter and playwright, he held many odd jobs from surveyor to tax office clerk to ribbon salesman. He added the meaningless “S” to the middle of his name in order to emulate the columnist Franklin P. Adams. He was a charter member of the celebrated “Round Table” at the Algonquin Hotel, a luncheon group of journalistic wits that included Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott.
Kaufman’s record of Broadway success is without equal, as more than forty of his plays and musicals reached the Broadway stage. Because almost all of them were written with co-authors, Kaufman was known as “the great collaborator”. His collaborators often provided the bulk of the plots while Kaufman focused on witty dialogue and his special brand of humor. He only wrote one play on his own: The Butter and Egg Man (1925). His Broadway hits included: with Marc Connelly, Dulcy (1921) and Beggar on Horseback (1924), with Edna Ferber, The Royal Family (1927) and Dinner at Eight (1932); with Morrie Ryskind and the Gershwin brothers, Strike up the Band (1930) and Of Thee I Sing (1931, the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize). Other hits included June Moon (1929) with Ring Lardner, The Solid Gold Cadillac (1953) with Howard Teichmann, and Silk Stockings (1955) with Cole Porter, Abe Burrows, and Kaufman’s second wife, Leueen MacGrath.
Kaufman’s greatest successes, however, came with MOSS HART (1904-1961). Raised in a poor section of the Bronx, Hart began his theatrical career as an office boy in a New York agency, and later eked out a living by directing amateur productions and “Borscht belt” summer entertainments. Determined to be a playwright, Hart pestered Broadway producers with his scripts until one draft comedy led to an opportunity to work with Kaufman. The result was Once In A Lifetime (1930) which ran on Broadway for 400 performances, surpassing all Kaufman’s earlier successes. Kaufman made Hart’s career by announcing onstage during the premiere that 80% of the show was written by Hart. Hart tells the story of this astonishing success in the autobiography ACT ONE (1959), one of the best theatre memoirs ever written.
Between 1930 and 1940 Kaufman and Hart brought eight productions to the Broadway stage, including two of the greatest hits of any era, You Can’t Take it With You (1936) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939). Although they remained good friends, Hart did not write with Kaufman after 1940 in order to prove he could succeed without the help of the “great collaborator”. As a solo writer, Hart’s most noteworthy works were the psychological musical Lady in the Dark (1941, with composer Kurt Weill) and the backstage comedy Light Up The Sky (1948). He also sold the rights to Winged Victory, a tribute to the Air Force, for a record million dollars.
Kaufman and Hart were also two of Broadway’s greatest directors. Both won Tony awards for directing, Kaufman for Guys and Dolls (1950) and Hart for My Fair Lady (1956). As a director, Hart’s other Broadway hits included Light up the Sky and Camelot (1960). Kaufman not only staged all eight plays he wrote with Hart, but also directed at least a dozen more of his own works, plus the premieres of important plays by other authors such as The Front Page (1928), Of Mice and Men (1937), My Sister Eileen (1940), The Enchanted (1950) and Romanoff and Juliet (1957).