Tuesday, March 30, 2010
You Can't Take it With You: Capra-corn?
After the massive success and Oscar sweep of It Happened One Night, Frank Capra became the preeminent director of the 1930’s. He picked up a second Best Director Oscar for his work on the film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in 1936; and two years later, Capra found that the third time’s the charm in picking up another two Oscars for You Can’t Take it With You. As Capra’s prestige rose, so did that of his studio, Columbia Pictures. You Can’t Take it With You was adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. (With greater success comes the choice of material, and Capra had moved past Cosmopolitan magazine for the source material for his films.) You Can’t Take it With You further establishes the Americana values Capra instilled in his work and proved to be incredibly popular.
The story of the film boils down to one central conflict: capitalism and isolation vs. individuality and community. James Stewart plays Anthony “Tony” Kirby, Jr., the son of wealthy banker and investor Anthony Kirby (Edward Arnold). Tony has fallen in love with his secretary (called a “stenographer” in the 1930’s), Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur). Alice comes from a family of eccentrics, headed by “Grandpa” Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore). Kirby Sr. is buying up property to create a monopoly on a munitions factory by snatching up the surrounding property—the only home he has yet to acquire is Grandpa’s. Both the steadfast determination of Grandpa to not sell (he is not by any means poor) and the budding romance between Tony and Alice threaten to derail the plans of Kirby Sr.
Barrymore does an excellent job of playing a charismatic eccentric. Early in the film, as he is making a significant withdrawal of his investments at the Kirby bank, he charms Poppins, a disgruntled employee, into coming to live with him. Grandpa tells Poppins he can “do whatever he wants”, and he leaves with Grandpa to follow his dream of becoming a toymaker. Spontaneity is common at Grandpa’s home. DaPinna, their ice-delivery man, became a permanent resident of the home one day when he simply decided to not return to work and make fireworks in the basement with Paul, Alice’s father. Alice’s mother, Penny (played by the Supporting Actress-nominated Spring Byington), writes terrible plays. Their other daughter, Essie, is a ballerina. Essie is married to the dim-witted Ed, who sells her homemade candies, distributes flyers, and is an amateur xylophonist. They, along with two servants who have equal status in the home—all live under the same roof, and from time to time, their Russian neighbor Boris serenades them. This is in direct contrast to the uptight Kirby’s, who are the definition of prim and proper.
Although Alice was given the cold shoulder by Mrs. Kirby, when Tony meets Alice’s extended family he is charmed. The star-crossed lovers decide that the two families should meet. Tony, fearing that his parents will put on a phony act in front of his fiancées family, surprises Alice by coming to Grandpa’s house a day early. Chaos ensues, and both families end up in jail because Ed’s flyers are mistaken for Communist propaganda. In jail, Kirby Sr. makes his disdain for Grandpa’s way of life known. Grandpa retorts, “Maybe it'll stop you trying to be so desperate about making more money than you can ever use? You can't take it with you, Mr. Kirby. So what good is it? As near as I can see, the only thing you can take with you is the love of your friends.”
So in that sentence, the theme of the film is encapsulated. From here out, it is evident that the Tony/Alice relationship is a subplot to the contrasts between Grandpa and Mr. Kirby. In many ways, the love story is the MacGuffin of the film. Instead, Capra presents the audience with the lifestyles of two men. In one corner is Kirby Sr., who is rich, powerful and a successful businessman—but his achievements are in many ways hollow, for he is lonely, his wife is uncaring and he barely knows his own son. In the other corner is Grandpa—who, let it be known, is also rich (though not to the degree of Kirby Sr.)—who lives with his eccentric family and friends. Although even weirdoes would find Grandpa’s extended family strange, they all bring each other joy and happiness. Capra leaves little doubt as to who is the wealthier man. To prove it, an outrageous courtroom sequence follows the jailhouse scene. When bail is set for Grandpa, it is his neighbors who collectively put up the money for bail.
If you can’t figure out where the remainder of the story is going—and it is concerned with the redemption of Kirby Sr.—who haven’t seen many movies. With the conclusion of the film, Capra is telling us that a person can amass all the riches in the world, but if he isn’t true to himself and his friends—and furthermore, friends and true family can only be gained when one embraces their individuality without prejudice—his wealth is hollow.
I think the ideals Capra espoused in his films are often too sentimental and very corny. You Can’t Take it With You is both. However, I look at entertainment today, and there is a permeation of messages reflecting consumerism and material gain. A person is measured by what they own, many forms of entertainment tell us. I look at You Can’t Take it With You (which seems ripe for a remake by Wes Anderson, the collection of individuals in the story are a perfect match for Anderson’s sensibilities and style, and those who love his work will also enjoy Capra’s film), and I’m glad that it a piece of popular entertainment—the film was the highest grosser of 1938—has a substantial anti-consumerist message.
Capra may be corn, and corn may be a bit passé, but sometimes it’s better to be out-of-touch than popular.
You Can’t Take it With You (1938)
Director: Frank Capra
Starring: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arthur, Spring Byington
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Total Oscars: 2 (Best Picture, Best Director) out of 7 nominations (Best Supporting Actress—Spring Byington, Best Adapted Screenplay—Robert Riskin, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Sound Recording)
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