1938: You Can’t Take it with You

(Originally published June 7, 2012)

Oh black and white films, how you stretch me.  This has truly been a character building exercise in patience, perseverance, and attention span.  The dialogue seems slower, and the picture seems difficult for my brain to comprehend because my whole world is in color.  However, thus far, I have found myself glued to every film as the plot thickens and the themes develop, and by the end I know the film has enriched me.

This challenge has partially contributed to my lengthy absence.  I also found a full-time job, not teaching, but enough to occupy my body and mind.  The other factor may have been that I met a very special man about two months after my last post who swept my life into a beautiful whirlwind of courtship, engagement, and marriage.  We tied the knot in November 2011 and I returned to my pursuit of teaching in January.  I spent this spring long-term subbing at one school and coaching lacrosse at another.  I barely found time to watch Castle with my new husband, let alone time to focus intently on a black and white film 🙂  However, with the return of summer, I find myself with a lot of down time and too much energy.  With the help of Groupon, I have discovered Zumba which certainly exercises my body but my brain craves a little more depth.  Enter, “You Can’t Take It With You,” the 1938 Best Picture Winner.  Which I actually watched shortly after my last post, but true to form, must have gotten distracted and forgotten to blog.  So I watched it again.

This is an entertaining comedy/romance, but is also heartwarming and thought-provoking. The dialogue is quick, witty, and captivating.  Tony is the handsome, charming, son of a wealthy businessman, Mr. Kirby, and he has genuinely fallen for his secretary, Alice.  Unfortunately, Alice is the granddaughter of a happy-go-lucky patriarch who refuses to sell his house to the Kirby Corporation.

Mr. Kirby is all business, all the time, and will step on anyone to accomplish a deal.  Grandpa Vanderhof plays the harmonica, slides down the banister, and doesn’t believe in income taxes, but he is full of some profound wisdom. As he reads the paper in an early scene, he says, “Lincoln said, ‘Malice toward none; charity toward all.’  Nowadays people say, ‘Think like I do or I’ll bomb the daylights out of you.’”  Later, Alice reveals her admiration of her Grandpa when she shares his views with Tony, “Most people nowadays are run by fear, fear of what they eat, fear of what they drink, their jobs, their future, their health…”

Besides himself and Alice, his household consists of granddaughter Essie, who makes candy and dances ballet, daughter Penny who writes plays, a son-in-law who plays the marimba, and a small collection of old men who make toys and fireworks in the basement workshop.  Everybody does what they love and lives in community together.  Eventually though, it is time for the straight-laced, snooty Kirbys to meet the family.

In a humorous, sneaky move by Tony culminating in a dramatic display of shouting, wrestling, and exploding fireworks, the senior Kirbys get a priceless introduction to the Vanderhof clan. Policemen even arrest everybody in the house, including the snobby Kirbys because of the antics of one of the residents.

While everyone paces in the same holding cell, Grandpa Vanderhof loses his temper, and straight-up tells Mr. Kirby exactly how he feels and exactly what could become of Mr. K if he continues down this path of obsessive greed.  He says to Mr. Kirby, “What makes you think you are such a superior human being? Your money?  If you think that, you are a dull-witted fool…You may be a high mogul to yourself, Mr. Kirby, but to me you are a failure.”  He goes on to declare that Mr. Kirby is well on his way to living out the rest of his life without any friends.   After Vanderhof finishes his rant, he settles down and offers Mr. Kirby his new harmonica as a means of apology.

Tony just stands by and watches.

In the following scene, the Kirbys and the Vanderhofs find themselves in night court.  Kirby is represented by four attorneys whereas the Vanderhofs have no representation.  Naturally, Kirby’s council pleads not guilty, and the Vanderhofs are exonerated of the charge of disturbing the peace. However, the Vanderhofs are fined $100 for manufacturing fireworks without a license.  In an attempt to clear Mr. Kirby’s bad name in all of this, his council announces on his behalf that Mr. Kirby will pay the fine for the Vanderhofs, but the crowd in the court will have none of it.  They dissolve into organized chaos, passing hats, collecting funds to pay the Vanderhofs fine.  The judge attempts to call for order, but eventually just sits back and chuckles at the joyous uproar.  Mr. Kirby fingers the harmonica in his pocket and silently ponders this community outpouring toward the folks he just called “scum” in the jail cell.

The judge demands an explanation for the Kirby’s presence at the Vanderhof’s home, but Mrs. Kirby is too embarrassed to admit that her son his interested in a stenographer from a crazy family who doesn’t pay their income taxes.  Tony remains silent.  In a show of gallantry, Grandpa Vanderhof explains that Mr. Kirby was only there to discuss the purchase of Vanderhof’s home.  But Alice has had enough.  She jumps to her feet and denounces Mrs. Kirby for her obsession with social position, Tony for his silence.  She says, “I’ve decided it’s your family that isn’t good enough!”  In the words of the journalists, “Cinderella tells Prince Charming to take a flying leap.”

As the movie winds down, in the inevitable conflict before resolution, Alice moves far away where Tony cannot find her, Mr. Kirby learns of the death of a friend and business partner he betrayed to pennilessness, and Grandpa Vanderhof sells his home to the Kirby Corporation and packs his bags.  But don’t worry.  This movie was made during the Depression; nobody wanted to be further depressed so it has the right ending.

Major Themes:

  • Family and home
  • Class
  • Fear
  • The pursuit of money and its consequences
  • The importance of living life to the fullest
  • Doing what one loves
  • Gentleness and kindness
  • Re-discovery of self
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