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Life in the Dark: Frank Capra’s “You Can’t Take It with You”

You Can’t Take It With You (1938)
Directed by Frank Capra
Screenplay by Robert Riskin; adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
Cast includes James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore and Edward Arnold

I thought I knew You Can’t Take It With You. After all, I’ve seen it at least a half dozen times, possibly as many as a dozen or more. Tony Kirby (Jimmy Stewart) is a young executive, the boss’ son, who falls in love with his secretary, Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur). She comes from a screwball family of irrepressible eccentrics. Like so many romantic comedies, the film follows the basic Shakespeare comedy schema: boy and girl are in love, but their relationship is blocked by the forces of social order, so they flee to a forest, a space apart, where they can be together – in this case, the forest being the ramshackle house of Alice’s family, where most of the movie takes place (an obvious marker of its origins as a stage play).

Well, all of that is true as far as it goes. But watching it the other night, I realized I had it all wrong really. You Can’t Take It With You is not so much the story of the son and his relationship, but rather that of the father, Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold) and his crisis of character. He’s the protagonist, the one whose character has an arc, undergoes a conflict and a transformation. The son just breezes along.  Stewart and Arthur are both so wonderful that it misleads you – though this isn’t their best work, nor even their best work together for Frank Capra, which is in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (in which Arnold also appears). No, it’s Edward Arnold’s Anthony P. Kirby that is the real hero here, as should have been obvious from the title – he’s the most likely person to whom “you can’t take it with you” might be addressed. Seen this way, the movie is the story of his realization that his life as a successful man of high finance has led him away from what is really important, and threatens to not only destroy his relationship with his son – and his son’s happiness – but also threatens his life.

The first key moment in his transformation comes during the exceptionally awkward first encounter between the families of the two love birds. When Mrs. Kirby describes her interest in occultism, Alice’s mother dismisses it as superstitious nonsense. Arnold as Kirby does the sliest of double takes – eyes shifting left to look at the exchange, as a very discrete smile plays across his face. Clearly, he thinks it’s nonsense as well, and is pleased to have his wife told so by someone other than him. It’s a nice bit of underplayed acting by Arnold, and Capra deserves credit for having him play it this way – Arnold’s acting is pretty much the only subtle thing in the movie, which is more in a slapstick mode for most of its performances. Also during this scene Kirby is given a harmonica by the patriarch of the madcap household, Alice’s Grandpa Martin Vanderhof, played by Lionel Barrymore with a wry folksiness over a powerful will and resolve.

This harmonica plays a role in the other key moment in the transformation of the elder Kirby, which comes during an extended scene at the bank, where he is about to put through a major deal that will give him a monopoly on arms manufacturing. As he stands in a conference room contemplating his life, he is confronted first by his son (the Jimmie Stewart character), who tells him he is quitting the business, and then by a former friend, the business rival whom he has just bankrupt.  After a long speech attacking Kirby, his rival collapses; he’s helped from the room, but then we are informed that he has died.  (I suppose it would have been too melodramatic to have him die on the spot.)

All the while, Kirby has been toying with the harmonica given to him by Grandpa Vanderhof, spinning it idly on the conference table, pushing it away from him, and finally retrieving it and putting it in his pocket. Then, as he rides up the elevator to make the deal of his life, he changes his mind, and commands the elevator to take him back down. It’s a replay of a scene we’ve had told to us before, and seen as well. Grandpa (Barrymore) earlier explained how he used to be a successful businessman, but one day while riding in the elevator he realized he’d had enough, and that none of it was satisfying, so he turned around and left – and never went back. And early in the film he convinces a clerk, Mr. Poppins, miserable in his job, to quit – and he does, joining him in the elevator, and then as part of his extended household of oddballs. So Kirby’s about face in the elevator is heavily significant. He’s changed sides.

The coda, the final step in his transformation, is when he joins Grandpa in a harmonica duet.  Not only does this symbolize that he is now in tune (the pun is inevitable) with Grandpa’s philosophy (“you can’t take it with you”), but it also serves to bring the reunited young couple, Tony and Alice, into the drawing room when they hear the music – thus reuniting father and son as well.  The music can also be read as equivalent to the wedding scene at the end of a Shakespearean comedy – the forces of social order have been overcome, the couple are joined in wedlock in the magical forest. And they all live happily ever after.

Seeing the movie as the story of Anthony P. Kirby and his crisis of character, rather than as a romantic comedy about Tony and Alice, may explain why the film is somewhat unsatisfying, not as artistically achieved as Capra’s other famous comedies, films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941). It’s an unwieldy melding of the two stories and unbalanced by trying to have it both ways. The long bank scenes about the business deal don’t belong in the romantic comedy, and the love scene in the park – with the “Big Apple” dance – doesn’t fit in the other movie. So the final result is too long, and awkward. And the casting of Jimmie Stewart and Jean Arthur in the romantic comedy weights things so heavily on that side that you can’t help but feel a bit impatient with the Edward Arnold scenes. Wonderful though Arnold is, you always want more Jean Arthur.

Despite these flaws, the film was a major critical and commercial success. Capra won the last of his three “Best Director” Oscars for it. The film also won for Best Picture, and had five other nominations as well. And it was the highest grossing picture of the year. But I don’t think it has fared quite as well in the years since, being less often shown and less well-regarded than most of the other major Capra pictures. Much as I enjoy the film, particularly its madcap components, I have to agree with that view of it – and I think it’s limitations are precisely the fault of this bipolar disorder, the split or conflict between the stories of Kirby the elder and Kirby the younger.

Misreading the movie as the story of the young couple and the oddball family rather than as Anthony P. Kirby’s transformation was not the only thing I got wrong. I’d interpreted or misremembered the movie as roughly in accord with my own liberal and free-spirited – and anarchistic – social philosophy, but in fact it looks to me now a lot like a piece of Tea Party propaganda avant la lettre.

When an IRS agent calls on Grandpa in an attempt to collect on back income tax, he’s challenged to justify the whole notion of income tax. What does he get for his money, Grandpa wants to know. The hapless tax man blusters and splutters – the whole thing is so huge and unexpected that he can’t come up with anything like a coherent response, but in trying to explain, he mentions interstate commerce.

The commerce clause is one of the most fundamental powers delegated to the Congress by the Constitution, and its scope and limits have long been the subject of debate, discussion and Supreme Court deliberations. Most recently, Tea Party followers have argued – sometimes with intelligence, more often quite stupidly – that the commerce clause has been pushed beyond recognition and that the Federal government has vastly overstepped the proper limits on its power (see, eg, here).

And when Grandpa also rails against all the ism’s that people seem to be getting involved in, particularly communism and fascism, and calls for more “Americanism,” he’s clearly very much in tune with Tea Partiers there as well.

But of course, there’s another side to it. Whatever their claims to libertarianism, the Tea Party is functionally a tool of big business (see here and here) – and it’s not much of a stretch to see similarities between Arnold’s financier, Anthony P. Kirby, and the billionaire bankrollers of the Tea Party. So in the end, while Grandpa’s “Americanism” and rejection of income tax (and perhaps his views on race relations) seem to match up well with the attitudes of the Tea Party, the film’s overall critique of big business in favor of loopy individualism seems like less of a comfortable fit. The dancing, fireworks and vibraphone evenings at the Vanderhof home seem more like what one would expect from liberal, loopy, free-spirited San Francisco than any Tea Party stronghold – though perhaps that’s just my desire to rescue a movie I’ve always enjoyed from what looks like a flawed and disturbing political philosophy.

But to return from this consideration of broader social issues to the movie… While his name not be familiar to you, there’s a good chance you’ll recognize Edward Arnold as Anthony P. Kirby. In addition to this film, Arnold appeared in two other Capra movies (in a more clearly supporting role) – Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941) – and in more than 150 other films during the course of a long career that began with Shakespeare on the stage at the age of twelve and continued with extra work in silent film, and then a wide range of sound roles, briefly as a lead and then as a much in-demand character actor.

Although he was labeled “box office poison” in 1938 by an exhibitor publication (he shared this dubious distinction with Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Fred Astaire and Katharine Hepburn), he never lacked for work. Rather than continue in leading man roles, he gave up losing weight and went after character parts instead. Arnold was quoted as saying, “The bigger I got, the better character roles I received.” He was such a sought-after actor, he often worked on two pictures at the same time… (via Wikipedia.)

Whatever the shortcomings of You Can’t Take It with You, Arnold elevates every scene he’s in – he never outshines the star wattage of the young and lovely Stewart and Arthur, but he gives a wonderful, subtle performance, the most powerful and crafted of the film.

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2 Responses

  1. k says:

    Great perspective on this film! I am in the midst of writing a review for my own blog and similarly re-examining this film with greater perspective. I’ve just searched for some racial analysis on this film, to little avail. I’d love to hear your thoughts on Rheba and her fiancee. I was also shocked by Vanderhof’s ridiculous resistance to paying taxes. It seems preposterous to me frankly. Nice connection with the Tea Party. The entire conservative philosophy is so ancient, unsurprisingly, and this is just another sad example of recycling ideas that have been resolved and eliminated decades ago by any educated, sane citizen. I’m also rethinking the father-son psychology and how poorly it is resolved. I’m still mulling it over, but thanks for a great perspective!

    • zerode says:

      The treatment of race is a bit striking and even a bit distressing – but that’s true of most of the movies of this era. But I’m not sure there’s much particularly noteworthy about it in this movie. I’ll be interested to see what you write about it.

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zerode by nick chapman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Oh - and hello to Jason Isaacs.

The 400 Blows


is an over-caffeinated and under-employed grad school dropout, aspiring leftwing intellectual and cultural studies academic, cinéaste, and former poet. Raised in San Francisco on classic film, radical politics, burritos and soul music, then set loose upon the world. He spends his time in coffee shops with his laptop and headphones, caffeinating and trying to construct a post-whatever life.


What's in a name... The handle "zerode" is a contraction of Zéro de Conduite, the title of Jean Vigo's 1933 movie masterpiece about schoolboy rebellion.

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