You Can't Take It With You (1938)

Chris Robé

Reveals the liberation offered by non-alienating work and examines the matrices between class and gender, as few other films do.

You Can't Take It With You

Director: Frank Capra
Cast: Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Columbia Pictures
First date: 1938
US DVD Release Date: 2003-02-18

Critics have often accused Frank Capra's films of being clichéd celebrations of the "pursuit of happiness." But this ignores the tensions found in most of his work. One need only read the first chapter of his autobiography, The Name Above The Title, to see his conflicted view of the U.S., as site of promise and exploitation. Capra reflects on his father buying a 15-acre farm in Sierra Madre, an escape for the family from the ghetto. But before his last mortgage payment, Capra's father was crushed to death in the gears of a machine at his factory job.

As a result, he writes, "Stunned Mama and frail Ann [Capra's sister] forfeited the ranch and returned to Little Sicily, as destitute as the day they had arrived in America 14 years before" (9). This recollection reflects two themes of You Can't Take It With You: the potential of a utopia and a critique of a system that often views individuals as nothing more than fodder for the gears of big industry.

Martin "Grandpa" Vanderhof's (Lionel Barrymore) house is the film's utopian space. Everyone in the house engages in activities they find personally rewarding. Penny Sycamore (Spring Byington), Vanderhof's daughter, writes plays because a typewriter was accidentally sent to the house eight years ago. Her daughter, Essie Carmichael (Ann Miller), practices dance even though she exhibits no talent for it. Ed Carmichael (Dub Taylor), Essie's husband, plays xylophone in order to accompany her dancing. All of these labors of love create a vibrant community.

The non-alienated labor of the household directly contrasts with the alienating workplace of Anthony P. Kirby's (Edward Arnold) bank. In the beginning of the film, we see Mr. Poppins (Donald Meek) slaving away behind an adding machine. Hunched over his machine, Poppins does not notice Martin Vanderhof standing nearby. Vanderhof asks, "Do you like this work?" When Poppins tentatively answers in the negative, Vanderhof asks, "Then why do it?"

Poppins answers that in the future, he hopes to take up his true passion: creating objects, for instance, a twirling, bouncing mechanical rabbit in a box. When his boss, John Blakely (Clarence Wilson), threatens to smash the rabbit, Poppins snatches his creation from his hands and leaves for Vanderhof's home, where he can pursue his interests, now.

The point is made: alienated labor pays individuals to punch numbers that mean nothing to those doing the work. Non-alienated labor is so rewarding that individuals often engage in it without pay. Alienated labor destroys community, non-alienated labor creates it.

But the film's narrative is more complicated than this opposition suggests, hinting at how monopoly capitalism's success depends on eliminating utopian spaces. The film begins with Kirby in his boardroom with other capitalists, all concerned that the Senate opposes their new merger in munitions. Kirby reassures them, "They'll be no interference from the powers that be," insinuating that they've been bought off.

In other words, capitalism and "democratic" politics do not check and balance each other, but rather, grease one another's wheels. Kirby asserts that the merger will create "the largest individual monopoly in the world." He has purchased almost all 14 square blocks to build his munitions factory, with only one hold out standing in his way: Martin Vanderhof refuses to sell his property.

This scene also reflects Capra's doubts about the New Deal's empowering of the federal government to restrain monopoly capitalism. One must look instead to the principled individual to offer resistance. (See also: Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.) It's helpful if the principled individual owns property. When all of the leasees approach Vanderhof after receiving eviction notices, he assures them that his decision not to sell precludes such action against them. As in all Capra's films, here the crowd is most productive when led by a good-hearted hero. (Without a strong leader, the crowd becomes a mob, as we see in the famous bank-run scene in American Madness.)

You Can't Take It With You also subtly links class with gender. Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur), of the lower middle-class, is engaged to Tony Kirby (James Stewart), son of millionaire Anthony. As Tony and Alice sit on a park bench, he remembers when he and a friend tried to figure out how grass stored energy from the sun, hoping to harness solar energy. Eventually, his friend got married and Tony started working for the bank, leaving their project unfinished. Here you learn that, in learning from nature, one assists the community. The scene is shot in a single medium take (the longest single shot of the film), suggesting the couple's equality and stability. But this utopian vision is ephemeral.

In fact, much of the film shows that Tony's privilege makes him ignorant of others' plights. He tends to embarrass Alice according to his unwitting whims, as when he puts a sign on her back, "Do The Big Apple," making her a laughing stock when visiting his parents at an upper class restaurant. Although not malicious, Tony is oblivious to Alice's acute discomfort. His inability to understand her need to show his parents her "good breeding" leaves Alice a perpetual "outsider."

Alice finally voices her anger in a courtroom, Capra's favorite place to reveal truths of various sorts. A judge asks the Kirbys explain why they were at the Vanderhof house in order to drop charges (of "public disturbance") against them. Rather than admit that they were visiting a secretary's family, Mrs. Kirby (Mary Forbes) accepts a citation. But, when Alice speaks up, Tony supports her, which only evokes her rage: "It's about time you've spoken up. You know, I decided it's your family that isn't good enough." Alice is an atypical Capra girl, because she becomes increasingly outspoken rather than domesticated.

Though You Can't Take It With You's predictable resolution might seem to reassure that utopia exists, it demands a property-owning male at the helm. Regardless if one sees this as a vision of security or confinement, liberalism or conservatism, You Can't Take It With You does reveal the liberation offered by non-alienating work and examines the matrices between class and gender, as few other films do.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.