You Can’t Take It With You (1938)

You Can’t Take It With You (1938)

As if winning all ‘Big Five’ awards at the 1934 ceremony were not enough, Frank Capra managed to bag Best Picture and Best Director again just four years later with You Can’t Take It With You.  Seventy years on, though, does this picture have much to offer?

To access this film we need to remember the role that cinema played in 1930’s America and how it fit into their society.  In 1938 war was looming and the USA was at the tail end of a deep depression.  Audiences needed to escape, to get away from their day-to-day lives and find a reason to have fun.  Cinema created this space, a place for people to enjoy themselves.  You Can’t Take It With You, about a family fighting to keep their home, reminds us that money and property are not the things which make us happy.  It is what we do with these things which really matters.

The story’s main family can best be described as urban gypsies.  At one point they are found frolicking about the room in song and dance, much to the shock and displeasure of the rich family who, in a classic instance of dramatic irony, want to knock down their house.  During the film the richies learn that money isn’t everything, there’s a marriage at the end and everybody is happy.

The best thing about this film is it’s crystal-clear characterisation.  Lionel Barrymoore is fantastic as Vandorf despite his crutches, and a young, droopy-faced James Stewart is clearly destined for stardom.

Aside from the film’s dynamic performances and interesting social commentary, I found very little to get excited about.  The problem which presents itself early is inevitably resolved, leaving very little room for surprise and the conclusion of the film is dull as black sand.  Think of the plot structure of the classic Shakespearean comedy – which, I must say, always bore me to tears.

I’m all for having a giggle, but when the whole point is to have a laugh without being obliged to think I am inevitably disappointed.  It’s too easy in today’s world to pretend that there aren’t problems, to sit around getting stoned and living off the government without ambition or care.  I’m willing to consume art and culture to help me learn about life, and I expect to grow when I do so.  I want to be reminded of my existence, that I am real, that I live in the world and other people do too.  I don’t want the kind of apathy that You Can’t Take It With You tries to feed me.  I want feelings and I want something worthwhile to care about.

Before watching this film it felt funny to me that Capra never won Best Picture for It’s A Wonderful Life, but seeing You Can’t Take It With You clears this up.  This is a prototype, fancy in it’s day I’m sure, but in the twenty-first century I want a little more bang for my buck.


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