You Can’t Take It With You (1938)

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.