You can well imagine Anthony P. Kirby’s chagrin.
In the 1938 screwball comedy, You Can’t Take It With You, Kirby (Edward Arnold) is a wealthy Wall Street tycoon, the type who buys federal regulators as easily as buying real estate. His latest deal involves munitions.
Kirby is a man who has no time or inclination for underlings. And everyone is an underling, except for Tony (James Stewart) his newly-minted Vice President and son.
Life for our tycoon is nothing but money and sunny skies. There is one dark cloud on the horizon, however: his son’s relationship with his working-class secretary, Alice (Jean Arthur). Kirby Sr. accepts this sort of thing in principle, provided it’s on a short-term basis and doesn’t result in marriage.
However, Tony and Alice suddenly become engaged, heralding the start of a fresh nightmare. Next comes the obligatory meeting with That Other Family, which Kirby Sr. calls the “slumming tour”.
Looking at it from an economic point of view, you can see Kirby Sr.’s disdain. Alice’s family, the Vanderhofs, live in a faded home of used-up wealth. And a lot of people live here, including the harmonica-playing grandfather (Lionel Barrymore), the artistic mother (Spring Byington) and a toy-making tenant (Donald Meek).
Into this chaos the Kirby clan mistakenly and unexpectedly arrive one evening, their delicate souls traumatized by the all-out creative Goings On at Chez Vanderhof.
It’s an evening that will change Everything.
They say 1932-33 was the worst of the Depression. By early 1937, the economy had seen significant improvement, only to collapse again by the middle of that year. Manufacturing went down, unemployment went up, and Washington pointed the finger at business monopolies.
You Can’t Take It With You examines this economic environment through the two families: the wealthy, out-of-touch Kirbys vs. the non-materialistic Vanderhofs. Yet Vanderhof Sr. holds no ill will towards Kirby Sr., even though the tycoon is angling to buy the poor family’s house and kick them out.
Vanderhof Sr. is a laid-back man who genuinely wants people to live a fulfilling life. He quotes Abraham Lincoln: “With malice towards none, and charity to all.” This is a marvelous guiding principle, but the script uses it as an indictment against the Kirbys.
You see, a hallmark of the 1930’s screwball comedies, besides witty lines, is social commentary, and there are plenty o’ withering observations here.
This film isn’t saying all Wall Street types are crooked, just these Wall Street types. The Kirbys see nothing wrong with unscrupulous business practices, but heaven forbid a poor family should have artistic eccentricities.
You Can’t Take It With You was directed by Frank Capra, whose films are sometimes referred to as “Capra-corn”. Some critics argue his films are too syrupy and sentimental.
Capra’s films are sentimental, but they also critique issues we recognize today: exploitation of the innocent, abuse of power, pursuit of justice, et cetera.
This film is a perfect example. Kirby Sr. wants to build a munitions monopoly; in other words, he wants to be the only one profiting from equipment specifically made to kill people.
That is twisted.
In our opinion, films dealing with such themes need to be sentimental. As long as there is corruption and oppression in our world, we need to see decent people fighting against and overcoming these miseries.
You Can’t Take It With You was adapted from the Pulitzer prize-winning Broadway play written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. But Capra left his fingerprints all over this film adaptation, such as an errant “Home Sweet Home” sign and having Kirby Sr. repeatedly pushed into an uncomfortable chair.
If you’re not familiar with 1930s screwball comedies, we urge you to see this one. Even though it was made over 70 years ago, its themes resonate with us today.
You Can’t Take It With You: starring Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Lionel Barrymore. Directed by Frank Capra. Written by Robert Riskin. Columbia Pictures Corporation, 1938, B&W, 126 mins.