Ten Decades of Oscars: YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938)

Hello! And welcome to the second installment of my weekly feature Ten Decades of Oscars where each week I’ll watch every Best Picture from a given decade, then choose one to discuss at length. This week, it’s Frank Capra’s YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU, which won top prize in 1938. The film follows the coming together of two families—one quirky and lovable, the other calculating and wealthy. They’re brought together by the passionate romance of Jean Arthur (quirky) and James Stewart (wealthy)—and to make matters worse, Stewart’s father—a cold and ambitious banker—needs the quirky family’s land to complete a deal that will make him far richer than he already is.

I’m not choosing which film per decade to spotlight based on any measurable metric. I’m going by gut—mostly what films stir the most words out of me. I was initially going to choose IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934), another Capra flick and probably my favorite of the 30s, but truthfully I don’t have much I could say other than to laud it for its endless charm and chemistry and humor, and how it’s the best kind of material for sentimentalist Capra. Then I also hummed over GONE WITH THE WIND (1939); my recent re-watch was the first in fourteen years and the film has been in the news lately, with HBO Max pulling it from streaming before re-issuing it with a warning for its woefully racist content. GONE WITH THE WIND is a hell of a monument still, and still worth watching for both its story and its history, but it’s the film everyone expects to be written about. I doubt I could add anything new to the discussion.

YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU is typical Capra in that it’s a fantasy of American life. You might say he invented the feel-good flick, or at least infused it with enough believability and wit to make them excel beyond simple morality tales. But YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU is oddly too moralizing with one heavy hand, and too saccharine with the other. I can see why it played well for its time: a parable about money in an era when virtually nobody had any. And I can view films through the lens of the time they’re made—I think holding films and shows made decades ago to today’s standards is a big flaw with modern criticism—but YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU is too sure of itself, too unwilling to be questioned, that I couldn’t help but question it every step of the way.

Lionel Barrymore plays the grandfather patriarch of the quirky family. From the outset, he’s obnoxiously sure of himself, having figured life out when he walked away from his well-paying corporate job to seek more fun in life. Early in the film, he’s visited by a cartoonishly characterized IRS agent because it turns out Grandpa hasn’t been paying income tax for years. When questioned why, he responds with the usual adages still heard today: he can spend his money better than the government; the government only uses tax dollars to fill the pockets of politicians and lobbyists; why pay into a system if you see no return for it? And naturally, the IRS agent is incapable of relaying the basic facts: that taxes are necessary for societies to function. That they pay for emergency response systems, for social and health programs, for defense and veteran programs. For education and development. Sanitation. Infrastructure. Recreational facilities. Basic amenities that improve our day-to-day lives we often take for granted. You’d think an intelligent man like Grandpa would understand this societal necessity. It’s clear that the vilification of the IRS in American society had already been well established since this film, but depictions like this have no doubt compounded and popularized the viewpoint. I’m sorry to stick to what is truly just a finite moment in the film, but it’s the moment the film began to lose me and I started to distrust the character we’re meant to trust the most.

Grandpa is the lone holdout in the sale of the block he lives on. The rest of the neighborhood is businesses that lease to owners who’ve all agreed to sell, and so the small business owners are reliant on Grandpa to never sell. And he tells them he won’t. He loves his home too much, which is understandable enough. But when we reach our low point and his granddaughter (Jean Arthur) runs away from home, he’s so distraught not being able to see her anymore that he puts the home up for sale anyway, jeopardizing the livelihoods of his neighbors and friends. You know, the same crowd of people who came to his rescue when he’s fined because he allowed an unlicensed fireworks workshop in his basement. This is all stuff in the film, folks! So again, it’s difficult to root for Grandpa even though he’s the black-and-white moralizer of the film. We’re meant to rally behind him at every turn and cheer on when he finally chastises Anthony P. King (Edward Arnold), the ruthless banker.

I guess the turning point for me—and this will vary from person to person—is you can’t take anything with you, folks. Not your home full of memories, not your family, not your hundreds of friends, not your meaningful relationships. Because when it’s your time, you’re gone, and you won’t know it. I get that this is another worldview that wouldn’t have been widely held in 1938, and I don’t blame the Academy for awarding this film. We live in economically turbulent times now, and maybe the bubble will burst any minute and soon I’ll be looking for art like this that can uplift me, that can make me feel better about the state of my life.

YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU isn’t an incompetent—or even bad. It’s perhaps misguided, and genuinely ill-paced and unfocused. It’s an hour and twenty minutes worth stretched over two and you can feel it in most scenes.

Well, I didn’t say I’d only feature films I’d like! If you’re still game, then join me next week when I’ll be taking a look at one of the winners from the 1940s. The contestants are:

REBECCA
HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY
MRS. MINIVER
CASABLANCA
GOING MY WAY
THE LOST WEEKEND
THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES
GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT
HAMLET
ALL THE KING’S MEN

YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU is available on Blu Ray and currently streaming on the CTV app, along with availability for rental and purchase on Google Play and the Cineplex Store.

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