“You’re an idiot, Mr. Kirby,” he cries, “What makes you think you’re such a superior human being? Your money? If you do, you’re a dull-witted fool . . . 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. . . . You’ll wind up your miserable existence without anything you can call friend. You may be a high mogul to yourself, but to me you’re a failure – failure as a man, failure as a human being, even a failure as a father.”
“You know, Grandpa says most people nowadays are run by fear. Fear of what they eat, fear of what they drink, fear of their jobs, their future, fear of their health. They’re scared to save money, and they’re scared to spend it. . . . People who commercialize on fear—you know, they scare you to death so they can sell you something you don’t need.”
These words, spoken by dauntless stenographer Alice in director Frank Capra’s 1938 film You Can’t Take It With You, could easily be a snapshot of modern society. The standards set today for a contemporary man, or a contemporary family, drive people to chase certain goals: having a certain kind of car, or a smartphone, or a perfect figure. Consumers dread falling short of the commercial ideal—even if they already possess all that is necessary for a happy life. Yet, they would do well to heed Alice’s inherited wisdom, because, in the face of modern materialism, Capra’s light-hearted You Can’t Take It With You rather boldly aims to redefine personal success and failure. A soul whose sights are set on material success, the film points out, ultimately loses its joy in living.
The story revolves—rather uniquely—not around the two young lovers, Alice and wealthy banker’s son Tony Kirby, but around the heads of their two families and the contrast between their personal philosophies. On the one hand is Anthony P. Kirby, successful businessman disconnected from his wife and son. On the other is Grandpa Vanderhoff, a father-figure whose zest for life is the heart of his family.
As the story begins, Tony’s single-minded, business mogul father is about to close a major deal, while, one room away, Tony is wooing pretty secretary Alice. When Tony’s mother tells his father about it, Kirby puts the matter aside as unimportant. The real center of his day, the reason he gets up in the morning and goes to work, is not his family, but his business. Grandpa Vanderhoff’s day, by contrast, is marked by acts of simple wonder at and delight in life: sharing a bag of popcorn, taking a walk in the park, sliding down a banister. He takes a genuine interest in the people he meets. Beginning a conversation with a clerk, he learns the clerk hates his job but has a special talent for toy-making, and invites the man home to dinner—and home to stay. “The same One [takes care of us],” Grandpa explains to him, “that takes care of the lilies of the field, except that we toil a little, spin a little, have a barrel of fun.”
Though his notions may seem foolishly idealistic, he simply has his priorities straight: if pursuing material success destroys a man’s happiness and love for life, it’s not worth doing. Unconventionally, each person in Grandpa’s household chooses whatever enables them to best fulfill their role as members of a family, joyfully—not whatever brings them the most success. Their lives are by no means idyllic; as Vanderhoff says, they “toil a little, and spin a little.” The family cannot scrape together one hundred dollars when asked to do so; there are even hints there have been harder times in the past. Yet, although the family lives hand-to-mouth; they are content doing so. They are happy, because they are not afraid of material failure; they concern themselves with a more important kind of success. What exactly that success is—and what exactly failure is—only becomes clear when Tony’s upper-crust parents come into direct conflict with the Alice’s colorful family.
Everyone in Tony’s life pursues material goals and consequently lives in perpetual fear. Tony’s father is afraid of failure at any step as a businessman. Tony’s mother is afraid that her son’s middle-class love interest will take a feather out of her social cap. And their associate Ramsey is the tragic portrait of a man so consumed by material business fears that it eventually quite literally kills him. Tony himself ultimately admits to Alice that fear of failure keeps him from pursuing what he really wants in life instead of simply conforming to the social expectations. “It takes courage,” he says, “You know everybody’s afraid to live.”
Such fears so deteriorate the relationships in his father’s life that eventually his father must face the bitter truth about himself: he is, as Grandpa Vanderhoff points out in a very rare outburst of righteous anger, a failure. When Kirby vehemently rejects Alice’s family and their whole class as scum, Vanderhoff loses his temper for the first time in 30 years:
In Grandpa Vanderhoff’s eyes, you can’t take it with you. Fears and undue concerns for material success are ultimately irrelevant, as he sees it, because material success cannot last. Capra’s film explores how success in the world’s eyes may mean failure in reality; and failure in the world’s eyes may mean success at what is most important. It presents a striking perspective on the fear instilled in the soul by materialism—particularly relevant in an increasingly materialistic society, as it undermines the commercial messages which pervade modern life. As Capra carefully makes clear, those who trust in God, like the lilies of the field, need not be anxious about material things, what they are to eat or what they are to wear—for the most successful businessman in all his material splendor was not arrayed in joy as one of these.