Frank Capra’s adaptation of the famous play by Hart & Kaufman was a bit of a surprise entry in Arts & Faith’s Top 25 list of films about Growing Older. Comedies sometimes seem to lack the moral seriousness of other genres, and at least one voter questioned the stereotypical representation of the Black servants.
The scope of You Can’t Take it With You is inter-generational, and the catalyst that moves the plot is that of young people (Jimmy Stewart/Jean Arthur) in love. It’s central conflict, however, is symbolized through a pair of patriarchs. Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) believes that the elderly have no right to interfere with young people in love. He uses his wealth to provide a haven for family and friends to pursue their passions. When the Russian ballet instructor says of Essie Carmichael that “she stinks,” Martin replies, “As long as she’s having fun.”
Anthony Kirby, on the other hand, is one of those fat-cat executives who feels the need to take over the world in order to leave it to his son, even if his son doesn’t exactly want it. The title of the film, which is also the film’s thesis, is delivered by Vanderhof to Kirby in one of those speeches that cinema’s idle rich inevitably give to its working rich.
If you sense a bit of sarcasm in that last paragraph you are right — but just a bit. I’m on board with You Can’t Take it With You even if it shows its age at times. “You just go on being happy,” Martin tells his granddaughter (Jean Arthur) when she shares that she is in love. Money doesn’t buy happiness in the film, but it does provide space for people to choose the things they think will make them happy, be they writing plays, learning dance, marrying young, or making firecrackers in the basement.
If the film is a bit of a liberal fantasy, it is at least one that takes its pleasure in imagining the conversion of the captains of industry rather than their humiliation or destruction. Kirby is misguided, but unlike his sycophants (or his uptight wife), he isn’t deliberately cruel. He wants what is best for his son; he just lacks the wisdom or reflective ability to interrogate his society’s assumptions about what is best.
The film concludes with a prayer in which Martin calls God “Sir” and and opines that everything has worked out “as it usually does.” Earlier, he has declared in prayer that all he and his kin want is to go along “as we are.” As pearls of aged wisdom go, this one is remarkably ambiguous, as it illustrates how thin is the line between contentment and complacency.
And yet…I keep circling back to “you just keep right on being happy.” There is something undeniably endearing about the film’s assertions that happiness is a choice and that self-acceptance is the foundation of contentment rather than the slippery slope at the bottom of which lies laziness and obliviousness to the needs of others. Martin is great not because of how liberally he gives to others but because of how infrequently he demands of them. He loses his temper when someone uses the dehumanizing language of “scum” to describe those who are different, but for the most part he is the most god-like of movie patriarchs, a benevolent, indulgent dictator who rejects no one except those who steadfastly refuse the hand of friendship.
Martin invokes Biblical language when tells Mr. Poppins that he is taken care of by the same one who cares for the lilies of the field. What is most interesting about that comparison, though, is Martin’s hedge that he and his family do toil “a little” and spin “a little.” That concession could be viewed as a little bit of hypocrisy, but I prefer to think of it as a concession to human frailty. Giving no care for the morrow is difficult. Perhaps it is only those who have tried who realize just how difficult.