Monday, October 18, 2010

Oscar Review: You Can't Take it With You (1938)

"As near as I can see, the only thing you can take with you is the love of your friends. "
The more I am acquainted with the work of Frank Capra, the more I appreciate how his movies can so sharply throw morals in the face of the audience without it being the least bit sugared down, and yet still be so thoroughly enjoyable. In the Academy Award winner for Best Picture of 1938, Frank Capra delivers yet another delightful and heartfelt story of love, family, and the cost of success.

At first glance, You Can’t Take it With You appears to be an unlikely choice for Best Picture when weighed against the other contenders of 1938. The romantic adventure The Adventures of Robin Hood was also nominated in the Best Picture category, boasting not only stunning color, but grand swordfights, medieval costumes, and splendid sequences of swashbuckling entertainment in every setting from the forest to the castle. Robin Hood won in the categories of Best Art Direction and Best Music, both of which were well-earned. Also in the category of Best Picture was the French masterpiece The Grand Illusiondetailing the lives of a few prisoners of war from the moment of their capture through their liberation by escape. The Grand Illusion was the first foreign film to be nominated for Best Picture, and is hailed by director Woody Allen as the finest picture ever made.

The social and political commentary of The Grand Illusion is possibly the most profound ever to be depicted onscreen. The Adventures of Robin Hood became a founding film of the epic adventure genre. Why then did You Can't Take it With You take home the Oscar that year? The reasons are far deeper than the fact that Robin Hood lacked depth and The Grand Illusion lacked English. You Can't Take it With You resonates on a level that is deeply close to home and emotionally accessible to the average viewer.

The social class divide is not a culture often associated with the United States, but You Can’t Take it With You plainly points out the social divide between the wealthy and successful versus the working middle class. When Alice and Tony find love in each other, Alice is harshly spurned by Tony's rich and uppity family when they tell her "If you had any sense young woman, you'd stay where you belong and stop being ambitious." In many examples of European and British literature, instances can be found in which love was hindered by the social divide and individuals being confined to the class into which they were born. A knighted shopkeeper is still a peasant, and a bankrupt lord is still a noble.

The United States celebrated that all people had the opportunity to advance, regardless of their ancestry. You Can't Take it With You highlights the American social classes, which were purely based on money rather than heritage. But in any social divide, there are always the pioneers and the traditionalists. Alice Sycamore is the pioneer who is not a gold-digger, but she feels she has every right to be in love with Tony, regardless of the difference in their financial circumstances. Tony's family the Kirbys are the traditionalists that thrive upon progress, but only to the degree that it increases their fortune and keeps the lower classes where they belong.

In the course of the story, Alice and Tony are both forced to recognize the great chasm between their two families, and even uproarious circumstances cannot bond the two sides together. Alice recognizes this obstacle earlier than her fiancĂ© Tony, who refuses to see the disastrous collision course that they have set their families on. The title You Can't Take it With You is taken from a speech from the elder Grandpa Vanderhof to the rich and stuffy Mr. Kirby. Mr. Kirby is a symbol of the tireless pursuit of the American Dream. Alice's grandfather embodies a man who may never have gotten everything he wanted, but certainly attained what he needed. Kirby sees success as an acquirement of money and power. Grandpa Vanderhof believes success to be related to family and friends. 
"What makes you think you're such a superior human being? Your money? If you do, you're a dull-witted fool, Mr. Kirby. And a poor one at that. You're poorer than any of these people you call scum, because I'll guarantee at least they've got some friends. While you with your jungle and your long claws, as you call 'em, you'll wind up your miserable existence without anything you can call friend. You may be a high mogul to yourself, Mr. Kirby, but to me you're a failure - failure as a man, failure as a human being, even a failure as a father. When your time comes, I doubt if a single tear will be shed over you. The world will probably cry, 'Good riddance.' That's a nice prospect, Mr. Kirby. I hope you'll enjoy it. I hope you'll get some comfort out of all this coin you've been sweating over then!"

Thankfully, as is the case with most Frank Capra films, after significant trouble and heartbreak, things eventually turn out. As is also the case with many popular Frank Capra films (It Happened One Night, It's a Wonderful Life), there is just enough tribulation to make one wonder if things really will end happily, and then just when all seems lost, someone bends, and the entire situation changes. By the film's end, a tender moment between old Grandpa Vanderhof and a very humbled Mr. Kirby bridges the great divide, leaving the cast and the invested viewer jubilantly singing together with a feeling of hope for the future. 

What starts as a comedy transforms into a heavy drama and ends with a warm absolution. Delightful, thought-provoking, and heart-warming, You Can't Take it With You resounds just as clearly now as it did in 1938, boldly stating that the American Dream is more than making money and gaining power. In the words of Grandpa Vanderhof, "As near as I can see, the only thing you can take with you is the love of your friends." 

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