You Can’t Take it With You (1938) dir. Frank Capra
Starring: James Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold
One of the essential Frank Capra’s pictures is “You Can’t Take it With You”, Capra’s tale of two new lovers caught in between their families’ conflicting ideals. It’s a great American story of class, wealth, and the pursuit of true happiness.
Tony Kirby Jr. (James Stewart) descends from a long line of bankers. He’s just been made VP of his father’s company, which has a reputation of shrewd and aggressive dealings. The position doesn’t sit well with Tony, whose real ambition lies as an entrepreneur/inventor. He’s also happy in love with his secretary Alice, something which doesn’t sit well with his mother. After all, the notion of an upperclassman marrying a lowly middle class stenographer is a social no-no.
Alice’s family is the exact opposite. Instead of stuffed shirts and long working hours, Alice grandfather and family patriarch Mr. Vanderhof encourages a free-spirited lifestyle of personal satisfaction rather than social climbing. Vanderhof also happens to own a piece of property which the elder, Kirby A.P. Kirby has been trying to purchase to complete his grand plan of financial domination. The meeting of the families produces much conflict but also a profound re-examintion of A.P.’s ethics and morals.
To newbies, Capra's reputation is that of a quintessential 'American' director, whose films represent the ideals, politics, and spirit of American culture. This is the case, but the ideologies of Capra’s films are not as simple as rah-rah patriotism, his cinematic morals often conflict with the traditional ideas of Americana.
In "You Can't Take it With You" Capra spins the traditional American ideals back on itself, revealing its flaws and shortcomings. In doing so, he always provides a deeper examination of his country and its people in emotionally simple ways.
Capra challenges the notion of the Capitalistic independent spirit which is the foundation of the great nation. Kirby’s astute business-savvy has allowed him to make more money than he could use and become an upperclassman in society. Vanderhof’s family is distinctly liberal – some would argue socialist even – a group of people who live and work together driven not by money but the pursuit of happiness. Though Capra clearly makes the liberal family the protagonists, they are never un-American.
The distinct magic of Frank Capra is evident in the final act. At the one-hour, forty mins mark Capra stages a wonderful courtroom scene which brings the Sycamore/Vanderhof and the Kirby families together in front of a judge. The scene is staged like a typical Hollywood climax scene, all the characters together in one room solving their conflicts. As a sign of appeasement A.P. Kirby offers to bail out Vanderhof, who declines. After which the citizens and friends of Vanderhof proceed to drop all their coins in a hat, making up Kirby’s offer. It’s a remarkably poignant moment, which could have made Kirby see the true value of friendship thus ending their conflict. All other film directors would have faded out there. But Capra films another act (a fourth act?) which throws even more obstacles in Tony’s way of being with Alice leading up to an even more emotionally satisfying ending - the harmonica serenade dance sequence.
Unfortunately, some narrative flaws prevent it from truly rising to the perfection of say, “It’s a Wonderful Life”. The Vanderhof’s and Kirby’s familes are related by a series of unnecessary coincidences – specifically, the fact Alice happens to be the granddaughter of the man Kirby’s been trying to buy his last bit of land from. This fact isn’t acknowledged until deep into the second half of the film, by which time, the reveal is inconsequential. In addition much time is spent away from the central characters – the courtship of Alice and Tony.
But Capra is a great filmmaker and he executes his final act with such deeply emotional resonance all the flaws quickly disappear from memory.
“You Can’t Take it With You” is a special film made by one of the few auteurs in early Hollywood. Unmistakably Capra-esque, an optimistic film which stimulates the audience to self-examine their own personal values. Are you a Vanderhof or a Kirby?
“You Can’t Take it With You” is available in Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s Best Picture Box Set