Though Frank Capra movies are typically classified as comedies, yet they really are not that funny. One reason is that they come across as homilies, and as there is nothing humorous about moralizing, there is an inconsistent tone throughout. Worse yet, the moral of his movies tends to be so simplistic as to have no practical value. Some of his movies are better than others, of course, but notwithstanding the fact that You Can’t Take It With You got the Academy Award for Best Picture, this is not one of them.
The message in this movie in particular is that everyone ought to just do whatever he wants to do. Well, I don’t know about you, but if I did what I wanted to do, no one would pay me for it. I like watching movies and writing reviews like this, and if someone wants to pay me to do so, I’ll be happy to take his money. But until I retired (and could finally do what I wanted), I spent thirty-five years holding down a job that wasn’t much fun. It wasn’t a bad job, as jobs go, but it was not what I wanted to do, which was mostly just take it easy and have a good time.
The movie centers on a family that embodies this principle of doing whatever you want to do. Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) supposedly collects stamps and is able to make money off his expertise, even though it is not clear how. His daughter writes plays, though there is no indication that she makes any money by selling them. His son-in-law and another man fool around with firecrackers in the basement, supposedly selling them from time to time. One of his granddaughters, Essie (Ann Miller), takes ballet lessons, so she represents an expense rather than a source of income. And so it goes. There is only one person in the household, Essie’s sister Alice (Jean Arthur), who holds down a real job, as a secretary, which would seem to violate the principle of doing whatever you want to do; but in any event, her income could hardly support the rest of the household. I suppose I should mention they have a full-time maid, who also is their cook, and they live in a house worth $25,000 in 1938 dollars, which adjusted for inflation would be over $400,000 today (at one point they are offered $100,000 for the house, or over $1,700,000, adjusted for inflation).
Doing what you want apparently includes not paying your income taxes. When an Internal Revenue Agent shows up to talk to Grandpa Vanderhof because he never files income tax returns, he says he doesn’t believe in paying taxes because he doesn’t care for the things the money is spent on. This completely confounds the IRS agent, as if the agency had never had to deal with that attitude before. When warned by Alice’s fiancé, Tony Kirby (James Stewart), that he might get in trouble, Grandpa says he really doesn’t owe the IRS any money. I guess that stamp-collecting expertise hasn’t been all that remunerative after all.
By now you may be thinking that I have missed the whole point, that this is just a comedy. Well, that brings us back to my original point. The movie just is not that funny. And because it is not very funny, I had time to reflect upon the sermon being preached by this movie, which I concluded was absurd for the reasons just given.
The ridiculous moral lesson of this movie is not the only thing that works against the intended humor. The movie is more manic than funny. We are supposed to be delighted by this crazy household, when in reality, none of us could stand being in that living room for more than a few minutes. You would not have to be a stuffed shirt like Tony’s father or a snob like Tony’s mother to be appalled that your son wanted to marry into a family like that.