Why Filmmakers Need to Bring Back the ‘Getting to Know You’ Shot

By Mark Judge Published on April 13, 2024

It’s a wonderful scene from a classic American movie. Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur are sitting on a park bench. They have just started dating and are having a conversation. The film is Frank Capra’s 1938 Oscar-winner You Can’t Take It With You.

The thing that is so magical about the scene is how it is directed. Stewart and Arthur are shot straight ahead, with both fully in the frame. You can see the body language and expressions as each talks with the other. It couldn’t be more simple.

Simple Shot, Deep Spiritual Meaning

Yet it’s a shot that in modern times may be considered primitive. Today conversations are filmed as “shot-reverse-shot.” The perspective is from behind the shoulder of the character being spoken to, the camera focused on the actor speaking. It then switches to the “reverse shot” when it’s time for the other actor to speak.

In the audio commentary of the Blu-Ray of You Can’t Take it With You, film historian Catherine Kellison, in conversation with Frank Capra, Jr., expressed sheer delight in the “getting to know you” shot — in fact the term originated with Kellison. “Look at her,” she says of Jean Arthur’s character. “She’s completely enthralled by what he’s saying.”

Stewart is just as taken. You Can’t Take It With You came out when film was still highly influenced by theater. Directors in both mediums wanted to see the actors head on. Audiences also.

The simple forward-facing shot of two of the Lord’s creatures taking delight in one another and our intelligence, empathy and humor, in treating each other with dignity, is pure magic.

It might seem like a small thing. But as a Christian and someone who worked in a movie theater in college, I know that these directorial decisions can have a big impact. We are God-created souls and bodies. Our physical forms react with joy and delight when we meet someone we like — especially if that like might be love.

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Something was lost when we stopped using the “getting to know you” shot. We don’t need AI or CGI or a lot of digital trickery. The simple forward-facing shot of two of the Lord’s creatures taking delight in one another and our intelligence, empathy and humor, in treating each other with dignity, is pure magic. It is the exact opposite of pornography. It is now very much needed in Hollywood.

A Salve for the Wounds After WWII

Sadly, we don’t make films like You Can’t Take It With You anymore. The plot: Tony Kirby (James Stewart) works at his family’s bank. His father, Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold), has just gotten a deal to build a government-sanctioned munitions factory. A family in a house where the factory is supposed to go refuses to sell. The patriarch, Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore), and extended family are eccentrics. The daughter spends her time dancing around the house, two uncles live in the basement and set off fireworks, and another prints up fliers that make people think he’s a communist. Family members like to acrobatically fly down the stairs of the big old house on the huge bannister. It is a place filled with music, joy, explosions, and love.

The conflict happens when Tony falls in love with the bank’s stenographer, Alice (Jean Arthur). What Tony doesn’t know is that Alice is a Vanderhof — she lives in the very house that Tony’s father wants to knock down. In the end, the Venderhofs prevail, even winning over Jimmy Stewart’s stuffy Kirby clan. You Can’t Take It With You took home Oscar wins for Best Picture and Best Director. The play also won a Pulitzer Prize following its 1936 premiere.

The actor and theater critic Ron Fassler described why You Can’t Take It With You remains popular even today: “One reason for its extraordinary popularity in those days is that it was a much-need salve for the wounds after World War II,” he wrote, “And why not? The play portrays an eccentric family that lives life the way they want to live it. Not selfishly — not at all — but on their own terms. They are kind and considerate. They don’t want to be pushed around and told what to do, that’s all. None more so than Grandpa, who never once paid any income tax.”

Again, some may think that my emphasis on a simple directorial decision is nit-picky. I disagree. I saw hundreds of movies hundreds of times working at the great restored art-deco Bethesda Cinema ‘n’ Drafthouse in the 1980s. I know that the simplest of shots can have very deep spiritual meaning. The “getting to know you” shot reveals us as not plain cogs in a story that had to keep moving lest we get bored, but as fully spiritual beings who should be seen in full. Directors need to bring it back.

 

Mark Judge is a writer and filmmaker in Washington, D.C. His new book is The Devil’s Triangle: Mark Judge vs the New American Stasi.

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