Monday, February 8, 2016

Movie Review - You Can't Take it With You

Frank Capra and James Stewart worked together on three film projects: You Can’t Take it With You (1938); Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939); and It’s a Wonderful Life (1947).

In You Can’t Take it With You, which was Capra’s and Stewart’s first film in the “trilogy,” Capra began examining the idea of the happiness money brings — or fails to bring — to an individual, and by extension, to his family. The main struggle in the film is between the happy-go-lucky Vanderhof family and the Kirby clan. The Kirbys want to purchase and raze the Vanderhof home, along with other surrounding homes, in order to build build a munitions factory.

Early in the film, one of the main characters, Grandpa Vanderhof, portrayed by Lionel Barrymore, talks about “Ism-mania.” Here, we begin to see Capra’s feelings toward America, its government, and its people through Grandpa Vanderhof: “Communism, Fascism, voodooism. Everybody’s got an ‘ism’ these days. When things go a little bad nowadays, you go out and get yourself an ism and you’re in business.”

His daughter, Penny, wonders aloud if the character in the book she is writing should have an “ism.” Grandpa Vanderhof responds to her idea: “Give her Americanism. Let her know something about Americans: John Paul Jones, Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, Lincoln, Grant, Lee, Edison, Mark Twain. When things got tough for those boys, they didn’t run around looking for ‘isms.’ Lincoln said, ‘with malice toward none and charity to all.’ Nowadays, they say ‘think the way I do or we’ll bomb the daylights out of you.’”

Listen to the exchange here:

Already in You Can’t Take it With You, we see not only Capra’s strong American sentiment, but also a strong aversion to aggression by the strong against the weak. Capra also establishes his overarching “umbrella” theme for all three films (You Can't Take it With You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and It's a Wonderful Life)  by quoting Lincoln. Boiled down, this theme is Biblical in nature: “love thy neighbor.”

Another repeating Capra/Stewart theme we see for the first time in You Can’t Take it With You is the value of friendship. The Vanderhof family has many friends throughout the community. They are disarming and charming, and we are able to see that through Mr. DiPinna (Halliwell Hobbes) and Mr. Poppins (Donald Meek), who are brought into the family first as visitors intrigued with the Vanderhof family’s philosophy for life. These characters never leave, but instead become part of the extended Vanderhof/Sycamore family.

This idea of following dreams is combined with the idea of capitalism within You Can’t Take it With You. Grandpa Vanderhof at one time had a good-paying job, but quit because he was not having fun doing it. Instead, he decided to spend his time collecting stamps and attending graduation ceremonies. He made his living as a stamp appraiser and taught his family to follow their dreams — to do what they enjoy doing — regardless of whether or not it is profitable. This echoes what George told Mary during the phone scene in It’s a Wonderful Life, when he said, “I want to do what I want to do.”

Money is not important to the Vanderhof/Sycamore family. Instead, they focus on family, community and the freedom of self-expression. Grandpa Vanderhof does not even care about birthdays and does not believe in paying taxes. Instead, he lives in the moment, filling his time with whatever activity happens to interest him at that exact moment.

We also are able to see the importance of friends on several occasions throughout the course of the film. During his trips to town, Grandpa Vanderhof is stopped on the street many times by a person or a group of people who want to talk to him. Often, they are looking for advice, or hoping he will provide a calming word when they are worried. Like many of the residents of Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life, Grandpa Vanderhof’s neighbors are renters who are subjected to the whims and decisions of their landlords. Grandpa Vanderhof and George Bailey serve the same role in their respective films: The residents in their town turn to them for guidance and help when their lifestyle is threatened. The irony is that Barrymore played both the calming Grandpa Vanderhof and the Scrooge-like Mr. Potter, who was harming the renters of Bedford Falls.

The importance of friends is further illustrate after the granddaughter, Alice Sycamore, leaves home, humiliated after a failed courtship with carefree mogul/heir-apparent Tony Kirby (James Stewart). The family decides to move closer to her, and enlists the aid of their friends, who help them pack their lives, memories and belongings. 

In another scene, the Vanderhof family has to go to court, where they face several charges, including manufacturing fireworks. Their friends fill the courthouse in order to show their support. “I didn’t know anybody had that many friends anymore,” a judge says to a crowded courtroom. Later in this scene, those friends pool their money to pay the Vanderhof family’s fine. It is a variation of the final scene in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Friendship and self-expression are key themes in You Can’t Take it With You. They are two of the tools Grandpa Vanderhof uses to rally against the monopolistic capitalism of Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold). While in jail facing the fireworks charge, the Vanderhof men and the rest of the inmates show that they can make the best of bad circumstances as they sing and dance in the jail cell. Mr. Kirby, on the other hand, sits alone and sulks.

At one point during their jail stay, Grandpa Vanderhof tries to convince the senior Kirby to enjoy life instead of concentrating on making money: “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.”

When the elder Kirby begins berating the criminals in the cell, Grandpa Vanderhof makes a surprisingly vehement speech that is out of character for him, considering his outlook toward life. The speech, in fact, is almost a re-write of what the ghost of Marley tells Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. However, speech still reflects Grandpa Vanderhof's moral values, illustrating that anger and morality can co-exist:

What makes you think you are such a superior human being?
Your money? If you do, you’re a dull-witted fool, Mr. Kirby, 
and a poor one at that. Poorer than any of these people that 
you call scum because I’ll guarantee at least they’ve got some 
friends, but you with your jungle and your long claws as you 
call them, you’ll wind up your miserable existence without 
anything you can call a friend. You may be a high mogul to 
yourself, Mr. Kirby, but to me you’re a failure. Failure as a 
man. Failure as a human being. Even a failure as a father. 
When your time comes, I doubt if a single tear will be shed 
over you. The world will probably cry, ‘good riddance.’ 
That’s a nice prospect, Mr. Kirby. I hope you’ll enjoy it. I 
hope you’ll get some comfort out of all this coin you’ve 
been sweating over then!”

Mr. Kirby (left) and Grandpa Vanderhof (right, with crutches)
This scene contains irony: Stewart’s character, Tony Kirby is in jail as well, listening to this speech, given by an actor to whom Stewart’s character will make a similar speech in It’s a Wonderful Life. Instead of a jungle cat, Stewart’s George Bailey will call Barrymore’s Potter character a “scurvy little spider.”

Yet another theme set in celluloid that we will find repeating in Capra’s and Stewart’s films is the importance of family. When Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) moves away from home in shame, her previously happy family becomes gloomy. This is best illustrated by the dejected Grandpa Vanderhof, who used to cheerfully return home from his trips to town. After Alice leaves, his returns home are quiet and low-key. Capra emphasizes the family’s gloom with rainy weather. Even some leftover fireworks no longer provide their formerly cheerful explosions. As we will see in It’s a Wonderful Life, the theme that every person’s life touches so many other lives began its Capra/Stewart connection here.

After Alice leaves, she begins writing letters home. In the one letter that is read on screen, she writes, “Mrs. Kirby was right. I should have stayed in my own back yard.” While used in a different context – that she should have stayed in her middle-class setting instead of falling in love with a man from a higher class – her statement is the exact opposite of George Bailey’s dream to see the world. Although she left her hometown because she was ashamed, she failed to realize that running from her problems will not solve them. Capra must have realized this error, and attempted to fix it in It’s a Wonderful Life. Instead of running from his problems, George Bailey faces them head-on. As a result he is “trapped” in Bedford Falls. However, the trap is of his own making, and he eventually comes to realize that no matter where you are in life, you will always have problems. He also realizes that it is easier to face those problems when you are surrounded by family, and that life is as good as you choose to make it.

Although Alice comes to the wrong conclusion, her dedication to her family still shows in the letters, she writes daily. Previously in You Can’t Take it With You, Capra had explored the idea of angels, when Grandpa Vanderhof tells Alice that he will not sell the family home because he thinks it will be like moving out on Grandma Vanderhof. Angels are revisited in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Because of her letter, Grandpa Vanderhof decides to sell the house and leave the memory of his wife. He has always lived for the moment, and is continuing to do so. What has changed is that part of him had continued to live in the past, for the sake of the memory of his wife. Grandpa Vanderhof comes to understand the message of the speech he gave Anthony Kirby while they were in jail. His memory of his wife is one of the things he can take with him.

He realizes that what is more important is to experience life with his family who is living. It is part of living in the moment. Alice continues to have an effect on him, shown by his unhappiness, and they all continue to have an effect on her, as she tells in her letter. Grandpa Vanderhof decides that if they are going to have that effect on each other, they might as well do it in person. Family is so important that he even accepts a low offer of $25,000 for his house, even though he had previously declined an offer of $100,000.

In the final scene of You Can’t Take it With You, we see the importance of both family and friends. In this scene, Tony Kirby is reunited with his father. Alice has returned home, upset that Grandpa Vanderhof has decided to sell the family home. In true “Capracorn” style, Tony Kirby and Alice make up, and Anthony Kirby accepts her into the Kirby family, as friends dance around them while singing “Polly Wolly Doodle.”

The scene is reminiscent of the gathering of George Bailey’s family and friends at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, and “Polly Wolly Doodle” has the same effect as “Auld Lang Syne” has in the final scene of It’s a Wonderful Life, bringing all of the characters together as one large, extended family.

Throughout You Can’t Take it With You, a sign that reads “home sweet home” becomes a symbol. At the beginning of the film, the sign is constantly knocked off its hook by a variety of exploding fireworks. One family member or another dutifully hangs the sign back up every time it falls. When the family is packing to move, the sign gets knocked off its hook and Alice’s mother, Penny, begins to sob. The sign comes to symbolize the destruction and displacement of the family and the homestead. However, that family unit is reestablished and the sign is re-hung in its traditional location, never to move again…unless it is knocked down by more fireworks.

As we saw in You Can’t Take it With You, Grandpa Vanderhof's friends show up in court to support him and pay his family's bail. It is a scene we also see in It’s a Wonderful Life when the residents of Bedford Falls band together to raise money to save the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan, and to keep George out of prison.

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