by Carl Pierer
Much has been written about how the political centre today can be characterised by offering a choice between two spins of the same idea. Essentially, a choice that is not a really choice. But this point is nothing new. Indeed, this very mechanism can already be found in the 1938 film You Can't Take It With You.
In line with his other films, Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You excels in a sentimentality and heart-warming humour that has won much popular appraisal. It is a film that is easy to watch, easy to enjoy and thus precisely of the charming sort that attracts fervent criticism. Too comforting, too nice, but most importantly too ideological. Capra's films are often seen to hide, behind a humanist façade, a stifling defence of the status quo and an outmoded idea of Americanness. This is not least due to his own descriptions in his autobiography. Against this sort of criticism, without defending Capra's non-existent ideas, it is possible to appreciate his You Can't Take It With You as a staple of ideological presentation of a pseudo-choice.
The film sets up a simple duality between the profit-driven, heartless Wall Street finance impersonation Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold) and the humane, caring, Christian but no less libertarian Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore). The central piece of exposition is the Vanderhof household, an endearing utopia where each and everyone can live their dreams: a granddaughter dancing ballet around the dinner table to her husband playing the Marimba, a daughter who writes plays and novels for the mere fun of it, a son-in-law who manufactures fireworks in cooperation with the iceman, who came a couple of years ago and decided to stay. Naturally, the servants (black, of course) are happy to serve in such an exhilarating environment and happy not to harbour any dreams above serving their (white) masters.
Held together by a cliché storyline that sees Vanderhof's granddaughter fall in love with Kirby's son and would-be successor, it is a tale of Kirby's conversion to Vanderhof's way of life. A tale of coming to appreciate what truly matters in life: friends rather than success, happiness rather than money, and, of course, love rather than status. It really is that bad. However, due to Capra's genius in capturing an energetic vitality that seems to burst forth from the screen, the superficiality is little felt.
It is easy, then, to watch this film, easy to be pleased by its greeting-card morality and most of all, easy to criticise. However, despite its feasibility, such criticism risks remaining as superficial as the values and depictions it decries. The interest of the film lies in its contradictions. Contradictions, on the one hand, between its striking superficiality and its captivating emotiveness, and contradictions, on the other hand, inherent in its narrative. The former can be brushed aside as Capra's artfully speaking to left-liberal sentiments: the situation is not that bad, if only we reconsidered what truly matters. The problem is not structural, rather a happy end is possible, if willed by all parties involved. More precisely, there is no problem at all. The emotiveness, on this reading, is part of the depiction, part of the illusion that makes us believe that poverty is not a structural problem, but rather a state of mind. It is the simply idea that the richest man without loved ones has not so much as the pauper who has a friend. Undeniably, this idea strikes a Christian chord and this is perhaps why the film's shallowness is still apt to move us. Yet, shouldn't we be weary of the well-off explaining to the poor their superior human richness?
The more interesting set of contradictions is to be found inherent in the narrative. While Kirby and Vanderhoff seem to offer opposing alternatives, they really are aspects of the same idea.
Graham Greene notes in his review of the film that, while it seems to oppose the rich Wall Street magnate Kirby and the poor Vanderhof, the latter, too, “doesn't, when you come to think of it, seem to lack money. Like the British Empire, he has retired from competition with a full purse.” And indeed, Vanderhof explains that he too used to pursue money when one day he realised that he was not having any fun doing so. It is at this moment he decided to retire – with stately savings, presumably, to finance the doings of the members of his household, the “lilies in the field”.
In addition, while Kirby stands for the loss of empathy in his expression of individual quest for wealth, Vanderhof's patriarchal regime is no less lacking in empathy. Both are manifestations of a libertarianism, Kirby of the right variety, whilst Vanderhof steers more to the left. In a speech ridiculing all sorts of political isms, Vanderhof frames his worldview as essentially a-political. Kirby, presumably, would have nothing to object to in anything that Vanderhof says. The monologue does bear uncanny similarities to the contemporary There-is-no-alternative-rhetoric that puts itself outside the political, and frames questions of social importance as questions of mere common sense and/or technical reason (e.g. the cliché of the Swabian housewife, who understands, in contrast to the Greek government, that you cannot possibly spend more than you earn). Here lies perhaps the strongest commonality of Kirby and Vanderhof: whilst the former does not care for social questions, he just wants to make money, the latter does not care either, he just wants to have fun. To frame this political commitment as beyond political discourse plays into the films contemporary relevance. For if Kirby is just like Vanderhof then also, necessarily, Vanderhof is like Kirby.
The film works hard to underscore the values of friendship and empathy. There is something ironic about the fact that the most sympathetic and heartwarmingly “good” deeds of the protagonists betray an ultimate selfishness. They are the pinnacle of reckless self-expression: Kirby's decision not to go ahead with the deal he's been pursuing for the better part of the film, mirrored in Vanderhof's to sell his house. The former is noted by Graham Greene: “(…) Grandpa Vanderhof persuades (…) the Wall Street magnate who has made the coup of his career and cornered the armaments industry to throw everything up and play the harmonica. This presumably means a crash in Wall Street and the ruin of thousands of small investors (…)”. So, Kirby's conversion comes at a price to society at large. However, everything is good because Kirby has discovered that he wasn't having any fun and losing his friends.
Vanderhof's decisions bear resemblance to this recklessness in their stress of individuality. In a block of buildings that is supposed to be sold off (to whom but Kirby?), he owns the last house and refuses to sell. Without his patch of land, the entire block cannot be sold. As long as he refuses to move, all the other residents, happy with their current situation, can stay where they are. When the neighbours become aware of the situation, they flock to Vanderhof to ask for his opinion on the deal. He, occupying a village-elder-like position among the residents, assures them that he will never sell of the house. Later in the film, as events turn more complicated, he renounces on this promise in order to accommodate his granddaughter. Of course, this decision will have similarly devastating effects on the community, forcing everyone to move and break up the social ties that have grown over time. But, tellingly, nobody seems to mind or reproach Vanderhof for turning on his word. Instead everybody gathers to help the family move.
Are we then to conclude with Greene that “(…) it is useless trying to analyse the idea behind Capra's films: there is no idea that you'd notice, only a sense of dissatisfaction, an urge to escape (…)”? Yes and no. The sweet sentimentality and the protagonists' apparent goodness of heart create a ‘humanist', comforting mixture. This lulling pleasance is, despite Capra's directorial genius, at points pushed to unbearable extremes. Incidental or not, they turn the perspective upside down. The magical conversion from Kirby to Vanderhof is not really a profound change, they are really the same option all along, albeit in different disguise. Kirby's realisation of what counts in life is not the breaking of the illusion and discovery of the “good” life, but rather a twist that perpetrates the very same illusion it pretends to dispel.
Yet, the fraying edges of this tapestry, the moments of utter ridiculousness and embarrassment, so duly noted by Greene, are exactly Capra's non-existent idea. There is no deeper level beneath the surface: You Can't Take It With You is just what it pretends to be. Thereby, it lets us realises the utter absurdity of the illusion. And it makes for a good laugh.
Greene, G. (1938, November 11). You Can't Take It With You. The Spectator, p. 15. Retrieved May 7, 2017, from http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/11th-november-1938/15/the-cinema
Mortimer, L. (1994). The charm of morality: Frank Capra and his cinema. Continuum, 7(2). Retrieved May 7, 2017, from http://wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/ReadingRoom/7.2/Mortimer.html
Sommerlad, J. (2017, May 7). “Tear Down The Fences”: Watching Capra in the Age of Trump. Retrieved from Mubi Notebook: https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/tear-down-the-fences-watching-capra-in-the-age-of-trump