When I’m stressed beyond the point of coping, watching an old black and white Hollywood comedy has the same calming effect on me as a bubble bath or mug of hot chocolate has on others. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the innocence of the humour (we have the tyrannical and homophobic Hayes Code to thank for that). Maybe it’s the light-hearted, guaranteed-to-have-a-happy-ending stories. Maybe it’s the soothing tones of Jimmy Stewart’s drawl. The reason isn’t important. What matters is just over two hours ago I felt like chewing a live wire but am now perfectly placid thanks to movie magic.
Even prior to the meltdown this week brought upon me, I was excited to see this film purely due to the director. Frank Capra’s other works include big five winner ‘It Happened One Night’ (which I have reviewed on this blog) and Christmas family favourite ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. ‘You Can’t Take It With You’ has all the warmth and smile-evoking moments you’d expect, which is just what I needed.
The film, adapted from a Pulitzer prize winning play, revolves around a young couple in love who come from very different backgrounds. Tony Kirby Jr (James Stewart) is the vice president of a Wall Street Banking company owned by his father Anthony Kirby Sr (Edward Arnold). Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) is a humble stenographer in the company. Despite the gap between their class and position in society, they remain unaffected by this fact and plan to get married. But as is often true in real life – especially in romances where class conflict is involved – their in-laws ruin everything. Not only is Alice’s ‘lowly’ position a hot button issues for Mr and Mrs Kirby, but her somewhat zany family aren’t winning favour either. Their life philosophy is all play and no work. The head of the extensive household is Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) whom everyone in the neighbourhood as well as family knows as Granddad. He quit his high-pressure job years ago once he realised he wasn’t having any fun, and encouraged his family to pursue the true joy found in the simplicities of life – singing, dancing, painting, inventing and generally creating happy memories with loved ones. Unlike the Kirby’s who live the dream of success and wealth, Granddad’s circus lives the dream of doing whatever they want. You can probably see where this is going having been weaned on Hollywood tropes all your life. Things quite literally get comically explosive when the two family’s meet, but ultimately everyone emerges a wiser person. Let cliché ring.
The charm of Capra’s films were appreciated in his time as well, and ‘You Can’t Take it With You’ was awarded best picture in 1938. Makes sense. It’s funny, has great characters, the film-making is swell, and it contains a both uplifting and valuable message to take from it.
Well, maybe I do have one complaint. Just one though. A teeny tiny wee one. Maybe a little bigger than that actually. Quite a grating one. I won’t lie, I have my doubts about this being a ‘best’ picture per se, not to mention stunned that the text it was adapted from won a Pulitzer. Okay I can either brush it aside, round this short review off on a positive note regardless and go have a beer…or I could rant for 600 more words about the negative aspects of the film.
This film is ridiculous. I appreciate the film is supposed to to be a screwball comedy but nonetheless its themes are serious. Class conflict and clashing families are such relevant and relatable themes yet they’re so seldom handled in a realistic, dramatic way. I’m not saying comedy can’t speak volumes but I wish this movie had toned down the screwball. Furthermore, the two families are very extreme and there’s no question of which one we are supposed to like. The Kirby’s are unapologetic, workaholic, money-focussed snobs. The Vanderhof’s are loveable, genuine, quirky and kind. They’ve practically got their own entourage of fans. I’ve no qualms about making a family of snobs the villain, but it would be much more effective if they weren’t such caricatures. Full disclosure: as someone from a working class background who was fortunate enough to make it to St Andrew’s University, I have networked with my fair share of snobs. And let me tell you, the worst kind of snob isn’t the what-are-your-people-in type, but rather the indirect snob. The seemingly likeable and modest one that behind their façade hides political ignorance and arrogance that you only pick up on if you understand the struggles of the working-class. The kind that thinks they have the right to dismiss the concerns of members of society they’ve barely associated with, let alone lived among. The sort who doesn’t realise how damaging and hurtful their attitude can be because they are honestly blind to it. And one gets the feeling that even if they did realise their blindness, they wouldn’t give a shit.
Forgive me, but living in a country where Eton-boy pricks rule and people still think the Royal Family has value beyond being a great tourist attraction can make a person weary.
The film actually plays down the class issue and plays up the clashing family values thing more. This is perfectly fine, and is I would concede something 99% of people can relate to. And despite my criticism, I must reinforce that I really liked this film. My favourite part was without a doubt when Alice had an epiphany that I myself had not long ago. When you meet your significant other’s family it’s easy to feel inferior, especially, if like me, your partner does happen to be from a different class. Putting aside class though, you might, like Alice, start to worry about whether your dysfunctional family is good enough or worthy enough. Suddenly they start to resemble the Barones from ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’. You suddenly wish you could give them a normality makeover.
But then, you have a realisation, sometimes through a blow-out argument or sometimes through just getting over your insecurities. And you realise that you and your family are good enough, in fact, that the word ‘enough’ has no right to be in this sentence. It applies to all relationships in life – we get so caught in whether we’re worthy enough for someone we forget to ask if they’re worthy enough for us.
The unique values your family instilled in you (however zany or unlike your S.O’s) made you the person you are; a person your S.O. adores. And at the end of the day, the only two people that matter are you and your partner, and the values you’ll share and build on together.
This review got a lot deeper than I intended. So I guess this cheerful little comedy affected me far more than I realised. For the wrong reasons possibly – not due to its substance but rather lack thereof. But whatever. I’m not sure this is a Best Picture – there’s no way nowadays it would win – but it’s definitely a really great fun one.