If Frank Capra’s cherubically bright and sunny screwball comedy You Can’t Take it With You seems hopelessly naive today a full eighty years after its debut, consider that a year to the day after its New York City premiere the Nazi war machine bulldozed its way into Poland, setting off the chain of events that would plunge Europe—and eventually America itself—into the bloodiest struggle in human history. Within a few short years both Capra and his star James Stewart would join the war effort, the former making propaganda videos for the Armed Forces, the latter flying bombing runs over Germany. How could anyone afterwards take a movie seriously where a billionaire arms manufacturer walks away from his fortune on the eve of international conflict after being both shamed and loved into conscience by a multigenerational, multiracial household of eccentric wackadoos? Even for Capra, the Depression-era prophet of benevolent American populism, the film can seem laughably short-sighted. At least at first.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by George S. Kaufman, the film follows the battle of wills between the industrialist Kirby’s and the bohemian Vanderhof’s, the latter a conglomeration of several generations of the Vanderhof family, their servants, and a liberal peppering of their friends and acquaintances. After the Kirby’s procure a government-sanctioned munitions monopoly—“There won’t be a bullet, gun, or cannon made in this country without us,” the dyspeptic paterfamilias Anthony (Edward Arnold) happily tells his aloof playboy son Tony (James Stewart)—they seek to sabotage their only competition by buying up all the buildings in a 12-block radius around their factory and evicting the inhabitants, effectively preventing them from maintaining a local workforce.
They succeed in buying all the buildings save one, the house owned by Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore), himself an ex-millionaire who became disillusioned with the world of high finance and walked away from it all to live a life of merry retirement as a stamp collection appraiser. His residual fortune has allowed his family to follow their respective blisses: daughter Penny Sycamore (Spring Byington) spends her days behind a desk banging out purplish stories on a typewriter and using a kitten as a manuscript paperweight; hyperactive granddaughter Essie (Ann Miller) invents candies in-between impromptu ballet recitals and sprees of gay lovemaking with her avuncular husband, printer and inveterate xylophone player Ed Carmichael (Dub Taylor). In their basement live a coterie of assorted friends—some of whom came to their house one day as strangers and ended up never leaving—who work on mad projects at all hours of the day and night creating silly knick-knacks and fireworks. Their approach to life is perfectly summated in Grandpa Vanderhof’s first scene where he meets Poppins (Donald Meek), an overworked accountant for the Kirby’s with a love for creating mechanical toys, and offers to let him live with their family so he can spend his life making gadgets.
“But how would I live,” Poppins nervously asks. “Who takes care of you?”
“The same one that takes care of the lilies of the field,” Grandpa Vanderhof answers, referring to the passage in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus reassures his disciples to not worry about material provisions. “If you want to, come on over and become a lily, too.” The scene ends with Poppins quitting his job, spitting in the face of his manager, and running off to join the Vanderhof’s.
The only relatively normal member of the Vanderhof’s is granddaughter Alice (Jean Arthur), Tony Kirby’s stenographer and fiancée. Unaware that their family is the single holdout in the Kirby real estate scheme, she invites Anthony and his stuffy wife Meriam (Mary Forbes) over for dinner. Tony, light-hearted cad that he is, deliberately brings them over on the wrong night when the Vanderhof’s are all tending to their respective gardens. In a sequence perfectly encapsulating that specific brand of snowballing chaos so particular to the screwball genre, the night ends in a Vesuvian conflagration of Soviet propaganda, police, and illegal fireworks. The whole motley lot are arrested and elbowed into the drunk tank where Grandpa Vanderhof dresses down the arrogant, cruel Anthony Kirby: “You may be a high mogul to yourself, Mr. Kirby, but to me you’re a failure. A failure as a man, a failure as a human being, even a failure as a father.”
This confrontation, along with the humiliation of being locked up in the drunk tank and publicly tried before a gaggle of vulturous reporters, brings about a revelation in Anthony Kirby of the kind so common in Capra’s Depression-era films: the awakening to populist consciousness. In many of his movies the awakening comes gradually, much like Claudette Colbert’s spoiled heiress in It Happened One Night (1934) falling in love with Clark Gable’s ragamuffin reporter while hitchhiking her way up from Florida to New York or Gary Cooper’s injured baseball player in Meet John Doe (1941) accepting his mantle as the face of a grassroots social movement. Even Stewart’s George Bailey—perhaps the most famous of Capra’s can-do heroes—needed the literal intervention of a guardian angel in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) to realize his life’s importance on his family and community. But Anthony Kirby gets no such leniency: his awakening to class consciousness is one of the most jarring and devastating not just in Capra’s career but in early American cinema, made all the worse by a sequence immediately afterwards where his sabotaged competitor pleads for mercy and kills himself all to the laughter and applause of his business associates. Having finally realized the depth of his greed and cruelty, he abandons his business, returns all the homes to the tenants he’d evicted, and makes up with the Vanderhof’s, consummating their newfound friendship with a lively harmonica jam session.
Of course with the advent of social media, today we’ve learned that super-wealthy capitalists can hardly be “shamed” into anything. Consider the case of former hedge fund manager and “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli—he seemed to revel in the public outcry following his increasing the price of life-saving AIDS medication Daraprim by a factor of 56. For many, this case permanently dismantled the myth of the benevolent capitalist of the kind so valorized in Depression-era cinema. (As film critic Lauren Humphries-Brooks has pointed out, 30s cinema wasn’t necessarily against capitalism or individual wealth, merely their misuse. Many classic films of the era like Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey  approve of gaining great riches and living lavish lifestyles as long as the well-off paid it forward by investing in local communities.) Likewise, in this age of social unrest and political upheaval, the film’s presentation of the Vanderhof household as a microcosm of America—a land where people of different races and socio-economic backgrounds can live and flourish in harmony—seems downright fantastical.
But to understand You Can’t Take It With You is to understand that the film itself puts relatively little faith in America as a political institution. An early scene where Grandpa Vanderhof fends off an aggressive IRS collections agent by saying that doesn’t “believe” in the income tax reveals an underlying suspicion towards those who try to legislate and enforce the American Dream. Likewise the climactic drunk tank courtroom scene ends not with the Vanderhof’s being let off the hook for their series of accidents, but being charged a shocking $100 fine. The magic of America—the America that Capra so firmly believed in—comes when all of Grandpa Vanderhof’s assorted pauper and bum friends pass a collections hat around in the courtroom to scrounge up the dough to get him released. It’s the innate, sacrificial kindness of the American people that inspires Capra and drives the film.
We can chortle about the film’s wide-eyed optimism today, but You Can’t Take It With You might actually be more relevant now than at any time in recent history. It didn’t fit in with the light-hearted breeziness and slacker mentality of 90s comedy; neither did it feel right amongst the wave of aggressive shock comedy that dominated the zeitgeist in the years following 9/11 right up to the modern day. But recently a growing handful of shows and movies have begun to embrace the idea of hope as an almost countercultural ethos: NBC’s Parks and Recreation and The Good Place; StudioCanal’s Paddington films; recent biopic documentaries like Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s RBG and Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Compared among these, Capra’s unapologetic belief in the myth of a truly egalitarian America seems right at home. It seems time has made this old film new once again.