A Thousand Clowns (1965)

I saw A Thousand Clowns when it was released in 1965, while I was in my second year of college.  It is one of those movies that praise nonconformity, making the case that it is wonderful to be a free spirit, defying convention, and living life to the full.  Other well-known movies in this nonconformist genre are You Can’t Take It with You (1938) and Auntie Mame (1958).  These movies make me say to myself, “Thank God for conformity!  Otherwise, life on this planet would be unbearable.”

Jason Robards plays Murray Burns, the nonconformist of this film.  His nephew Nick (Barry Gordon) lives with him in an apartment.  Murray glories in not making much sense, but the fact is, the world he lives in does not make much sense either, because it is a fake world, written to suit the purposes of the story.

When the movie opens, Murray and Nick are out on the street in New York City, early in the morning.  Murray starts hollering at the people in the apartment buildings that they need to clean their windows.  Later in the movie, Nick says that Murray hollers all the time:

He hollers.  Like, we were on Park Avenue last Sunday, and it’s very early in the morning.  There’s no one in the streets, see, just all these big, quiet apartment houses, and he hollers, “Rich people, I want to see you all out on the street for volleyball.  Let’s snap it up!”

And Nick is right.  Murray talks loud and hollers throughout the movie.  He is not content merely to be a nonconformist in his own quiet way, but feels compelled to put his nonconformity on full display for the benefit of the whole world.

Murray makes fun of the people who are going to work in the morning, which he refers to as a “horrible thing.”  He used to have a job working for a guy named Leo, writing jokes for a children’s show called Chuckles, the Chipmunk, but he quit and has been receiving unemployment checks for five months. Nick mentions that in school he wrote an essay on the benefits of living on unemployment insurance, which has precipitated an investigation to see if Murray is fit to have custody of Nick.

Let’s stop right there.  First of all, people who get laid off can receive unemployment checks, and so can those that quit for a good cause, such as a medical condition.  But you don’t qualify for unemployment benefits if you simply got tired of working and quit.  Second, social workers do not take children away from their homes because the person taking care of them is receiving unemployment checks.  The whole point of unemployment insurance is to allow people to have something to live on, which includes taking care of their children, until they find another job.

Nevertheless, two social workers, Albert Amundson (William Daniels) and Dr. Sandra Markowitz (Barbara Harris), come calling on Murray to see whether or not Nick should be taken away from him and put in a foster home.  Amundson is a typical character in a nonconformist movie, someone who is anal, who thinks everything must be in its place, and that everyone must act in strict accordance with his sense of propriety. And as the world never manages to live up to his rigid standards, he always seems to be on the verge of losing control of himself.  The movie needs such a character to convince us that conformity is bad, so nonconformity, by default, must be good.  In other words, if Amundson were your typical social worker, a fairly normal person, we would conclude that Murray was wrong to act the way he does.  By making Amundson so ridiculously uptight, the movie hopes to persuade us that Murray’s way must be the right way.  William Daniels, who plays Amundson, is perfect for this kind of role, if such a role is required, which is the case here, unfortunately.

After Murray talks loud and acts crazy in front of Amundson and Markowitz for fifteen minutes, with Nick doing the same, we eventually get the serious reason why Nick is with Murray.  When Nick was five, his mother abandoned Nick, leaving him at Murray’s apartment.  No one knows who the father was.  Normal social workers would be glad that a relative is taking care of Nick and would probably want him to have legal custody, because that is preferable to putting Nick in a foster home. But not so in this movie.

And then, just to add to the absurdity of it all, Nick does not have an official name.  The explanation given is that since Nick was a bastard, his mother decided not to give him a last name.  And since she didn’t give him a last name, she didn’t want to give him a first name either.  As I mentioned above, this is a fake world.  If an unwed mother refuses to name a child, the name will be assigned by the state, typically giving the child the mother’s maiden name, and picking a common first name to complete the process.  The only way her child could avoid having an official name would be if there were no birth certificate.  So, what did his mother do, have him under a bridge?

Dr. Markowitz is a fairly normal person and thus more like a typical social worker. However, she was engaged to Amundson, and they quarrel while at Murray’s apartment.  He leaves without her, and she becomes hysterical.  But soon it is that she and Murray fall in love.  And you know what that means.  She wants him to give up his nonconformist ways and get a job.  And the principal reason why Murray should do this, according to the movie, is emphasized over and over again, that only by getting a job can he retain custody of Nick.

Amundson returns the next day to explain the situation to Murray:

Late yesterday afternoon, the Child Welfare Board made a decision on your case. Now, uh, the decision they’ve reached is based on three months of a thorough study.

Since Murray has been receiving unemployment checks for five months, the investigation apparently started two months after he quit his job.  Boy, that Child Welfare Board is really on top of things!  Amundson continues:

Our interview yesterday was only a small part of that.  Quite thorough.  I want you to understand that I am not responsible personally for the decision they’ve reached….  Months of research by the board and reports by the Revere School show a severe domestic instability, a libertine self indulgence, a whole range of circumstances severely detrimental to the child’s welfare.

Amundson informs Murray that it is the board’s decision to remove Nick from his home and find a place for him where he can lead a normal, wholesome life, even though he admits that Murray loves Nick:

Now, I believe that you are a danger to this child.  … I wish this were not true, because it is obvious you have considerable affection for your nephew.  It shows in your face, this feeling.  Well, I admire you for your warmth, Mr. Burns, and for the affection the child feels for you.

Meanwhile, all over the city, children are being physically and sexually abused, but it appears the Child Welfare Board won’t have time to get to them.  They’re too busy worrying about Murray’s bohemian life style.

The most reasonable spokesman for conformity is Murray’s brother, Arnold (Martin Balsam).  He tries to explain to Murray the virtues of conformity, with special emphasis on the fact that the state will take Nick away from him if he does not get a job.  But while he goes on at length trying to persuade Murray to go back to work, the one argument that never seems to occur to him or anyone else in this movie is the one that is the most obvious:  eventually the unemployment checks will stop, and with no source of income, Murray will be evicted from his apartment, and he and Nick will have to live under that bridge where presumably Nick was born.  The steady drumbeat of how the state will take Nick away from Murray, if he does not get a job, is supposed to distract us from the main reason people have jobs, even if they do not have a child to take care of, which is that they need a paycheck.

The way this movie is oblivious to the need for a job, for the simple reason you need money to live on, reminds me of a guy I knew in my senior year of college.  When I mentioned something about having to find work after I graduated, he dismissed my concerns with disdain, saying, “You don’t have to work. That’s just what you’ve been brainwashed to believe by the establishment.”  He said this without irony, as if the fact that he had been sleeping on his friend’s couch for the last six months was a permanent option, and one available to us all.

Auntie Mame is similar to A Thousand Clowns in that both movies involve someone who has custody of a nephew, but at least Mame has enough money to live independently when the movie starts.  It’s a whole lot easier to be a nonconformist when you’re rich.  The family members in You Can’t Take It with You, on the other hand, are not rich, but they are contemptuous of ordinary work, just as Murray is. They have the philosophy that everyone should just do what he wants to do, and somehow enough money can be made doing whatever that is to get by.  But they are like that guy I knew who slept on his friend’s couch, for they are supported by Jean Arthur’s character, the one person in the family with a real job.

Just as Amundson is supposed to make conformity look repulsive in this movie so that we will side with Murray in his refusal to conform, so too are the jobs Murray is offered so repulsive that we are supposed to side with Murray in his refusal to go back to work. But he lives in New York, and there are more jobs in that city than those that have something to do with producing a television show. Nevertheless, Murray agrees to go back to work for Leo, writing material for Chuckles, the Chipmunk.  But Arnold warns him that he won’t be home free just because he has a job:

Now, my agency lawyer gave me all the facts.  The most the board will allow you is a probationary year with Nick, a trial period, and the board’s investigators are going to be checking up on you every week, regularly:  checking to see that you still have your job, checking with Leo on your stability, checking up on the improvements in your home environment.

They will be watching his every move!

So, there is little for Murray to do but take that job and marry Sandra, allowing him to retain custody of Nick.

In his Guide for the Film Fanatic, which was published in 1986, Danny Peary remarks that the movie, once a cult hit, no longer holds up:  “Today its sellout conclusion, in which the nonconformist lead character willingly sacrifices his way of life because of familial responsibility, doesn’t sit well.”  He suggests that the movie The Kid (1921), a Charlie Chaplin movie, had a better resolution.  But for this movie to have an ending like the one in The Kid, that would have required that Nick’s mother turn up, having become a wealthy woman somehow, ready to regain custody of Nick and, presumably, to let Murray sleep on her couch.

But more to the point, the movie is no longer the cult hit it once was, not because of the “sellout conclusion,” but because people no longer buy the premise.  I’m sure that guy I knew in college, who was contemptuous of the notion of having to work for a living, wore out his welcome, sleeping on his friend’s couch, and eventually had to face the cold, cruel world that expected him to get off his butt and get a job. Society no longer puts up with nonsense like that once you turn thirty.  He and a lot of other idealistic hippies may have loved A Thousand Clowns while being supported by their parents or managing to sponge off others, but found that it lost its charm when they ended up having to go to work to pay the bills just like everyone else.

Hair (1979)

It sure must be great to be such a free spirit that you don’t have to work for a living because you can always beg from people who do. And it sure must be great to be such a free spirit that you never have to wash your clothes or take a bath. And it sure must be great to be such a free spirit that you do not have to worry who the father is if you get pregnant, or, if you are a man, worry about supporting the woman you abandoned when she turns up with your child. And it sure must be great to be such a free spirit that you can display your superior attitude toward life by stomping all over the food that people were going to eat at a dinner party. And it sure must be great to be such a free spirit that you can steal a car just because the guy who owns it is uptight and therefore deserves to be treated with contempt.

What an insufferably sanctimonious bunch these lowlifes are! My flesh crawled all through this movie Hair. Thank goodness people do not put up with this nonsense in real life.

You Can’t Take It With You (1938)

You Can’t Take It with You is one of those movies that show how wonderful it is being a free spirit, defying convention, and living life to the full.  It is premised on the profound insight that a goddamn job won’t make you happy.  A movie of this sort, however, must overcome a difficulty.  There are basically only two ways to avoid work, either by being rich or by depending on others for support.  As most of those in the audience work for a living by holding down a regular job, they will have a tendency to resent those that do not.

As a rule, we do not resent the rich per se, but only the idle rich.  No matter how much money a man might have, as long as he can be thought of as working in some manner or other, his wealth does not disturb us.  We might even imagine that he works harder than we do, putting in hours far beyond the traditional forty-hour work week.  It is only the rich that make no pretense at all of working, either because they just laze about all day, or because they party hard all night, that make us acutely aware of the unfairness of it all.

An example of the idle rich may be found in the movie Auntie Mame (1958).  The title character, played by Rosalind Russell, is financially independent when the movie starts, and she is free to live an unconventional life.  Then she loses it all when the stock market crashes, forcing her to have to hold down a few jobs, none of which she is suited for.  But then a rich oil man, played by Forrest Tucker, falls in love with her and marries her.  Then he dies, leaving her all his money, allowing her to go back to living life to the full.  The movie has many more complications, and I haven’t even mentioned her nephew, but no matter.  You get the idea.  If you have enough money, you don’t have to work, and if you don’t have to work, you can do your own thing.  In praising nonconformity in this way, the movie is essentially telling us we ought to be rich, as if we never thought of that before.  She clearly has advantages the rest of us don’t have, and she even looks down her nose at those who are not fortunate enough to be rich, saying, “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!”

As for the freeloader, who depends on others for his support, it’s bad enough that we have to work while he does not, which is sufficient to cause resentment all by itself, but he does so at our expense.

An example of the freeloader is Uncle Murray in A Thousand Clowns (1965), played by Jason Robards.  He ridicules all the people in the city that go to work every day, while he collects unemployment checks, which are funded through the taxes paid by those that employ the very people he has contempt for.

Both Auntie Mame and Uncle Murray have a nephew.  It was important that the young relative in each case be a nephew rather than a child of their own.  We would look askance at someone who got married, had a child, and then decided to enjoy living unconventionally.  Once you have decided to have children, your days of being a free spirit are over.  But both Auntie Mame and Uncle Murray had custody of a nephew thrust upon them, so we can hardly blame them if they try to combine their duties as a guardian with their refusal to conform to the norms of respectability.

It was also important in each case that the young relative be a nephew rather than a niece.  A teenage boy exposed to such disregard for convention is no cause for alarm.  But the audience might have misgivings about letting a girl grow up in that environment, for there is the sense that girls need more protection and care than boys.

You Can’t Take It with You attempts to steer clear of either the Auntie Mame or the Uncle Murray solution to avoiding work as ordinarily understood.  It does so with limited success.  In fact, the difference between the movie and the play on which it is based is evidence of the tension that arises in trying to go between the horns of that dilemma.  First we’ll examine the movie, and then we’ll consider the play; because more people have seen the former than the latter.

The Movie

The movie begins on Wall Street, where Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold) arrives in his chauffeur-driven, Rolls Royce limousine in front of a building with a plaque on it displaying the words “Kirby and Company.”  He has just returned from a trip to Washington, D.C., where he testified before the “Securities Commission.”  He is serious and abrupt as he moves with brisk determination into the elevator, on his way to his office on the top floor, where people are waiting, as per his instructions by telegram.  He takes a minute to greet his son Tony (James Stewart), whom he has recently made vice president in the firm, telling him he almost sent for him because he might have liked the White House.  Before getting down to business, he orders a bicarbonate of soda on account of digestion problems he has.  He is one of the industrious rich, the opposite of the idle rich referred to above.

He tells his associates that there will be no interference “from the powers that be.”  The way is clear for Kirby and Company to become the “largest individual monopoly in the world,” controlling “every type of war material.”  He continues, saying, “With the world going crazy, the next big move is munitions.  And Kirby and Company will cash in on it.”  One of his subordinates comments with wry amusement, “A war wouldn’t be possible anywhere without us.”

Because it can be a challenge to make the audience sympathize with characters in a movie that flout the work ethic, those that do believe in work are often portrayed as being unlikable, making it impossible to identify with them.  By default, we are forced to side with the ones that don’t want to work.  That is what is going on here.

Anyway, the only thing standing in Kirby’s way to having a complete monopoly in war material is a man referred to as Ramsey.  He owns factories that make bombs and bullets, and he refuses to allow his business to be absorbed by Kirby and Company.  But Kirby has been buying up all the property surrounding these factories, twelve blocks worth.  Once he owns it all, Ramsey won’t be able to sell his munitions because he won’t be able to move stuff in and out of the factories.  He’ll have to sell out to Kirby.  I don’t suppose I have to mention that this is absurd.  Just because you own the all the property in a neighborhood, that doesn’t mean you own the streets.  But this a Frank Capra movie, and his movies are full of nonsense like this.

The only thing holding up Kirby’s scheme to buy up all the surrounding property is Martin “Grandpa” Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore), who refuses to sell.  Kirby’s real estate agent Blakely tells him Vanderhof’s house is only worth $25,000.  (Adjusted for inflation, the house is worth over $450,000 in today’s dollars.)  He says he’s offered him $50,000, but he still won’t sell.  His associate, Mr. Hughes, says Vanderhof isn’t interested in money.

When Blakely is informed by a receptionist that Vanderhof has arrived, Hughes asks, “How did you get him to come here?”  We never get an answer to that question.  But while Vanderhof is just standing around, he goes over to a Mr. Poppins (Donald Meek), who is busy adding columns of figures.  Vanderhof asks him why he is doing that, and if he wouldn’t rather be doing something else.  Poppins admits he likes to invent toys, and he surreptitiously shows Vanderhof a bunny that rises out of a hat and then drops back down while music plays.  Vanderhof says that is what Poppins should be doing all the time.  Poppins says, “Some day I am going to do nothing else.  Some day, when my ship comes in.”  Vanderhof invites him to quit his job, come live at his house, which is full of people who just do what they want to do.  There he could work on his gadgets.

And now Poppins asks the big question, the question that hangs over this movie:  “But how would I live?”  Vanderhof answers, “The same way we do.”  Poppins persists, “Well, who takes care of you?”  Vanderhof replies, “The same one that takes care of the lilies of the fields, Mr. Poppins.”  This is an allusion to Matthew 6:28, which is part of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells his listeners not to worry about food and clothing, for the Lord will provide.

Blakely interrupts all this, offering Vanderhof a check for $100,000 for his house.  That’s over $1,800,000, adjusted for inflation.  Even if we stick with that original estimate of $25,000, which is, to repeat, over $450,000, adjusted for inflation, we must admit that it sure was nice of God to have provided the Vanderhof family with such an expensive house.  Anyway, Vanderhof shows no interest in the offer, telling Blakely that his eye twitch would probably go away if he took a vacation and went fishing.  Then he leaves, with Poppins chasing after him, having decided to become a lily.

When they arrive home, Poppins is introduced to the rest of the household.  There is “Grandpa” Vanderhof’s daughter Penny, who writes plays, and her husband Paul, who works on fireworks in the basement with a Mr. De Pinna, who used to be their iceman, but chose to become a lily too some nine years earlier.  There is Penny’s daughter Essie (Ann Miller), who makes and candy.  She is married to Ed (Dub Taylor), who delivers her candy to customers.  He also plays the xylophone and likes to print stuff up on his printing press.  Essie takes ballet lessons from a Russian named Kolenkhov.

I noted above that it was important that neither Auntie Mame nor Uncle Murray had a son, but were responsible only for a nephew.  In this case, Grandpa has a daughter, but she is in her early fifties.  In fact, there are no young children in the house at all.  Had there been, say, a fourteen-year-old girl living in that house, the audience might not have been so accepting of the environment she was being raised in.

Jesus didn’t say anything about God providing servants to cook and clean for you, but the lilies in this household have Rheba, a black woman, who is their cook and maid.  After all, being able to do just what you want to do does not include having to cook your own meals and clean your own house.  Fortunately for the white folks in the house, the Rheba hasn’t picked up yet on the idea that she should just do whatever she wants, otherwise she might forget about cooking and cleaning and just play the banjo.

Rheba is engaged to Donald (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson), who is on relief.  Now, we’ve already had one explanation as to how the members of this family can get along without having a real job, which is that the Lord will provide.  But Donald has a more realistic solution, which is to live on the government dole.  “I ain’t done nothing,” he says, “but I’m sure tired,” to which Rheba replies, “You was born tired.”  In the play, he complains that every week he has to stand in line for half an hour in order to get his relief check.  He thinks the government ought to be run better than that, because waiting in line like that breaks up his whole week.

Most of those in the Vanderhof house could apply for relief, if they had a mind to, but they are white.  As noted above, people don’t like freeloaders, those that are able to avoid work only because they are being supported by others, in this case, ordinary taxpayers.  The movie allows this for Donald because he is black, since the audience of 1938 expected no better from the “colored folks.”  He provides a little humor as the shiftless “coon.”  Had the white people in the house been on relief and having a good time at the expense of those that work for a living, people in the audience would not have been amused.

Of course, if this movie were made today, Donald would have to be white.  Having one white guy in this household depicted as being a lazy, welfare cheat could be funny.  But cast an African American in that role today, and the audience would definitely not be amused.  Rheba could remain black, since it is almost obligatory to have a miscegenous couple in a movie like this nowadays.  And while we are at it, I suppose it would be better to have Essie be a man, so that he and Ed could be the gay couple.  But I digress.

There is one more member of the Vanderhof family yet to be mentioned, and that is Essie’s sister Alice (Jean Arthur).  She is Tony’s secretary.  They are in love and want to get married.  We learn from Alice that “Grandpa” Vanderhof used to have a regular job, but one day he quit.  (In the play, it says that Grandpa is seventy-five years old, and he quit that job thirty-five years ago.)  He could have been rich, she says, but he wasn’t having any fun.  After he quit his job, he started collecting stamps.  He’s now an expert, she says, and he gets paid to appraise collections.

In addition to this source of income, there are hints, here and there, that the activities pursued by others in the house also bring in some money, though we have to wonder how much.  Paul and De Pinna sell their fireworks on the Fourth of July.  Essie makes and sells candy, but she doesn’t want to open a shop, because it would interfere with her ballet lessons, the cost of which may well offset whatever revenue she brings in from selling candy.  Penny writes plays, but we don’t hear about any of them having been performed on stage.  At one point, Ed remarks that his income from the previous year was $85.  Adjusted for inflation, that would be just over $1,500 today.

Adding it all up, we find it hard to believe that enough money is brought in to pay the bills, although that is more believable than the idea that God will provide for them like the lilies in the field.  As noted above, however, Alice is a secretary.  And while her income does not seem as though it would be enough to support the rest of her family, the movie would collapse without her.  While her relatives are engaging in activities that just look like hobbies, we are able to suspend disbelief and convince ourselves that they do bring in a little income with their stamps, plays, candy, and firecrackers, but only as long as Alice is there as the fundamental breadwinner.  But now the movie is teetering on making the rest of the family look like freeloaders, taking advantage of someone that works for a living.

When Tony and Alice are on a date, she tells him about how wonderful Grandpa is with his philosophy of just doing what you want to do, which is a whole lot more fun than holding down a job.  With feelings of regret, Tony tells of how in college he and a friend of his dreamed of figuring out how photosynthesis works, although no one in a Frank Capra movie would ever use a fancy word like that.  But then they graduated, and now his friend is selling cars while Tony has ended up being a banker.  He also mentions that his friend’s wife just had a baby, which as noted above, forecloses a lot of options when it comes to doing what you want rather than holding down a job.  Neither of them is very happy, but neither of them has the courage to do what Grandpa Vanderhof says they should.  But while this conversation is going on, we keep waiting for Tony to ask Alice, “So, why don’t you do what you want to do instead of being a secretary?”  But neither Tony nor anyone else in the movie asks her that question.  I might more easily believe that Mr. Kirby enjoys the prospect of becoming a war profiteer than I could ever believe that Alice is a secretary because that is what she loves doing more than anything else, because it’s so much fun.

Speaking of income, an Internal Revenue Agent shows up one night to talk to Vanderhof, because their records show that he hasn’t filed an income tax return for twenty-two years.  A ridiculous argument ensues between the two, in which Vanderhof says he hasn’t paid his taxes because he doesn’t believe in them.  He doesn’t think he would be getting anything from the government that he cares about.  The Internal Revenue Agent is flustered, as if the IRS has never come up against someone like that before.  After the agent leaves, Tony, who has arrived halfway through this conversation, tells Vanderhof that he might get into trouble for not paying his taxes.  Vanderhof allays his fears, saying, “No, not me. I was only having fun with him.  I don’t owe the government a cent.”  So, it looks as though appraising stamp collections is not as remunerative as Alice led us to believe.

Because selling fireworks on the Fourth of July would not bring in much income for the entire year, Poppins suggests promoting the Russian revolution as an occasion for celebrating with fireworks.  Ed says he can print up flyers to go in the boxes of candy that Essie sells, saying, “Watch for the Revolution.  It’s coming soon” and “Get your Red Flag from Sycamore.”  “Sycamore” is Paul’s last name.

Because Alice is just a secretary, Mrs. Kirby disapproves of her son’s plans to marry her.  She is such a snob that she makes Mr. Kirby seem like a halfway decent fellow.  As a result, Tony and Alice decide that the two families should meet to see if they will get along.

At this point, the Kirby’s are not aware that Alice’s family lives in the house that Mr. Kirby wants to buy, nor are those in the Vanderhof home aware that it is Mr. Kirby that is trying to buy their house.  Grandpa tells Alice that he doesn’t want to give up the house because it reminds him of Grandma, who still seems to have a presence there.  Moreover, when Grandpa goes outside to give the neighborhood children some of Essie’s candy, his neighbors tell him that their landlords have already agreed to sell their property if Grandpa does, the result being that they will be forced to leave their businesses and homes.  Grandpa assures them that he will not sell.

Anyway, the two families need to meet, but instead of bringing his parents over for dinner on the night he and Alice planned, Tony purposely pretends he got mixed up on the night of the dinner, bringing them over the night before.  His idea is so that his parents can see Alice’s family as they really are.  It is a disaster.  It looks as though the wedding is off.  But before the Kirby’s can leave in a huff, G-men come in through the door to arrest Ed for advocating an overthrow of the government with those flyers he’s been printing up.  While they are trying to explain that it’s all just to sell fireworks, those same fireworks accidentally go off in the basement, and everyone, including the Kirbys, are taken to jail.

The all end up in night court.  Mr. Kirby has four high-priced lawyers defending him, but the courtroom is packed with Grandpa’s friends.  Mr. Kirby begins to have doubts, to wonder if Grandpa is right, that it is more important to have friends than money, because you can’t take it with you.  Of course, it is one thing to tell Mr. Kirby, who is a man of great wealth, that he should retire and start having fun.  If he does so, he will simply be like Auntie Mame, someone who is able to be a free spirit because he is rich.  But you have to have enough money to pay the bills before you can spout that philosophy, which we haven’t yet convinced ourselves is true of Grandpa and his family.

As a result of the hearing in night court, Alice becomes fed up with Tony and his family.  She breaks off the engagement, quits her job, and leaves town, saying she just has to get away from it all.  Tony comes over to the Vanderhof house, trying to find out where she went, but they won’t tell him.  Everyone is sitting around moping.  I know I’m being a butt about this, but I couldn’t help thinking that they were depressed because their chief source of income had disappeared right along with the person that used to provide it.  Why, they might even have to get rid of the maid and start cooking their own food and cleaning up after themselves!

They get a letter from Alice saying how much she misses them, so Grandpa decides to sell the house and move everyone to where Alice is so they can all be together again.  It’s a sad situation, on account of the memories of Grandma and the situation regarding the neighbors, but it has to be done.  Once Mr. Kirby owns the house, he puts the final squeeze on Ramsey, bankrupting him, financially and emotionally.  After telling Mr. Kirby that he will die a cold and lonely death, Ramsey collapses and dies of a heart attack.

As a result, Mr. Kirby realizes Grandpa is right and sells the house back to him, which is fine with Grandpa, since Alice has returned and agreed to marry Tony.  Even Mrs. Kirby shows signs of coming around to the idea.  They are now one big happy family.

The Play

You know all that stuff about Mr. Kirby wanting to become a war profiteer with monopolistic power, trying to force Ramsey to sell by buying up all the property around his factories, but Grandpa Vanderhof doesn’t want to sell because he can feel Grandma’s presence, and how the neighbors are depending on him not to sell so they can continue to have homes and businesses in the neighborhood, but he decides to sell anyway so they can live with Alice?  None of that is in the play.

All three acts of this play are set in the Vanderhof house.  Act I is the night that the Internal Revenue Agent comes over, after which Tony arrives to take Alice out on a date.  As we are introduced to the household, there are the same hints that they might make some money selling candy and fireworks, but we have the same misgivings as to whether they provide enough income to pay the bills.  Instead of the $85 Ed made last year in the movie, in the play his income for the previous year is even less, $28.50.  Adjusted for inflation, that is like $525 today.  We learn that Grandpa likes to collect stamps, but there is no indication that he makes money appraising stamp collections.  What he really likes to collect are snakes, but there is no suggestion of any income resulting from that hobby.  It is Donald’s job to collect flies and bring them with him to feed the snakes when he comes to see Rheba.  So, once again we figure that Alice must be the principal breadwinner of this family, especially since there is no reference to the “lilies of the field” or the notion that the Lord will provide, aside from some routine remarks thanking God for their good fortune when Grandpa says grace.

Act II is the night that Tony, accidentally on purpose, brings his parents over to meet Alice’s family.  Before they arrive, De Pinna comments on how surprising it is that he came to this house eight years ago to deliver the ice, saw what was going on, quit his job, and has been living there ever since.  Grandpa remarks that the milkman did the same thing for five years before that.  When he passed away, however, they had trouble getting a death certificate for him, so they just buried him under Grandpa’s name, Martin Vanderhof.  More on this later.

In reading the play after having seen the movie, we find it surprising to see that the Kirby’s are really not so bad.  As already noted, Mr. Kirby is not aspiring to be a monopolistic, war profiteer.  As for Mrs. Kirby, she does not come across as the disapproving snob that she was in the movie.  They are what you would expect from a bank president and his wife:  perhaps a little stuffy, perhaps a little superior in their attitudes, but not the caricatures depicted in the movie.  To a certain extent, we sympathize with them.  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.

When Mrs. Kirby says she is into spiritualism, Penny insults her by saying it is fake and that believing in it is silly.  Then Kolenkhov demonstrates his wrestling skills by throwing Mr. Kirby to the ground, breaking his glasses.  These two incidents were in the movie, but there the Kirby’s seemed to deserve this ill treatment.  Here, we can almost admire the Kirby’s for their restraint.  Then Penny insists on playing one of those games that can embarrass people by getting them to reveal things that are personal.  I refuse to play such games myself, but the Kirbys go along with it, much to their regret.  After that, they politely try to excuse themselves and leave.  I can’t say that I blame them.

At this point, the G-men enter the house, looking for Ed, on account of the circulars he has been putting in boxes of Essie’s candy.  Only in the play, the circulars say things quite different from that in the movie:  “Dynamite the Capitol,” “Dynamite the White House,” “Dynamite the Supreme Court,” and “God is the State; the State is God.”  This last is often attributed to Trotsky.

In the movie, we thought the G-men were silly for getting all excited about circulars that said things like “Watch for the Revolution.  It’s coming soon.”  But distributing circulars like those printed up by Ed in the play would be a criminal act, and we would expect the government to take them seriously.  Moreover, when the G-men find a basement full of gunpowder, they reasonably suspect that the men down there were planning on blowing up those government buildings mentioned in the circulars.

As a matter of fact, the play is full of references to the Russian revolution and communism that were minimized in the movie.  Kolenkhov is always talking about how terrible things have been in Russia since the revolution, sneering at the Five-Year Plans.  Like himself and his friend, the Grand Duchess Olga Katrina, cousin to the Czar, she and others had to flee Russia, especially when Stalin rose to power.  She is now reduced to working in a restaurant where the manager does not like her because he is a communist.

In reading the play, therefore, we can’t help but wonder if there is a political message underlying it all, with the Kirbys representing capitalism, and the Vanderhof family representing communism.  In Act III, on the day after they have all been released from jail, Mr. Kirby tells Grandpa that he is opposed to the marriage because Grandpa’s philosophy is un-American, and he does not want Tony to come under its influence.  When Tony asks what is wrong with Grandpa’s philosophy, Mr. Kirby answers, “Matter with it?  Why it’s—it’s downright Communism, that’s what it is.”

Consider Karl Marx’s slogan, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”  Now, it was part of Marx’s theory that the state would eventually wither away.  In such a world, there would be no one to tell the individual what he should do.  As a result, his “ability” would naturally express itself in an activity he found congenial.  Are not those making up the Vanderhof household members of a commune, one in which each person is acting according to his ability in some endeavor he enjoys?

Mr. Kirby’s assertion that Grandpa’s philosophy is un-American because it is communism is not in the movie.  Instead, we have a scene in which Grandpa makes a suggestion as to what kind of play Penny should write:

Why don’t you write a play about “ism” mania?…  You know, communism, fascism, voodooism.  Everybody’s got an “ism” these days….  When things go a little bad nowadays, you go out and get yourself an “ism,” and you’re in business.

Penny says that it might help one of the characters in her plays to have an “ism.”  Grandpa agrees:

Yes, it might at that.  Only give her Americanism.  Let her know something about Americans:  John Paul Jones, Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, Lincoln, Grant, Lee, Edison, and Mark Twain.

Needless to say, Lee’s name would be left off this list if the movie were remade today.  It was probably put there to appeal to Southern audiences.  But Grandpa is just getting started:

When things got tough with those boys, they didn’t run around looking for “isms.”  Lincoln said, “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”  Nowadays they say, “Think the way I do, or I’ll bomb the daylights out of you.”

Well, isn’t that nice?  More soldiers died in the Civil War, over which Lincoln presided, than in any other war in America’s history.  In fact, the number of men that died in the Civil War is just slightly exceeded by the total number of deaths in all the other wars America has fought combined.  And since it was a war in which Americans fought one another, you might say that it was the most American war of all, the one most representative of “Americanism.”  But to hear Grandpa tell it, it is only recently that people have decided to go to war with those they disagree with.  And it’s all because of those “isms.”  In other words, any notion that the Vanderhof household is un-American and represents communism has been squelched by this revisionist spiel.

In the end, Tony admits that he read some of the letters Mr. Kirby wrote to his father in which Mr. Kirby wanted to be a trapeze artist.  Later on, Mr. Kirby wanted to play the saxophone, but he says his father knocked those silly notions out of him.  Tony says he is not going to let that happen to him, so he’s quitting his job at the bank.  Grandpa makes Mr. Kirby realize that he hasn’t been happy working on Wall Street all these years.  As a result, Mr. Kirby no longer disapproves of the marriage, and he agrees to stay for dinner to get to know Alice’s family better.

All right, so where are we now?  As noted above, there is no talk about the lilies of the field in this play, of the notion that somehow the Lord will provide.  And we still find it hard to believe that the hobbies of that Vanderhof family bring in enough money to pay the bills.  Moreover, now that Tony and Alice will be getting married, she will be moving out of that house, so no longer will her salary as a secretary be contributing to the support of the rest of them.  In fact, she has already quit that job.

The solution to this mystery is provided early in the play, but in the chaos taking place in the Vanderhof living room at that moment, it tends to get lost.  The ridiculous argument between Grandpa and the Internal Revenue Agent is just like the one in the movie with one notable omission.  Instead of Grandpa telling Tony later on that he doesn’t owe the government a cent, Grandpa admits to the Internal Revenue Agent that he owns “property,” though we are not told what sort.  It might be real estate, stocks, bonds—we just don’t know.  But the income from that property, which he has been receiving for thirty-five years, since 1901, has amounted to between $3,000 and $4,000 per year.

Let’s take the average, $3,500.  Adjusted for inflation, that amounts to about $66,000 per year.  Since no taxes have been paid on any of this money, it is the equivalent of having $66,000 per year in after-tax income.  Let us assume that this income represents a 5% return on the property that generates it.  That means the property is worth $1,320,000.  Combine that with the value of his house, adjusted for inflation, and Grandpa has a net worth of $1,770,000.  Now, we don’t know why Grandpa only acquired this income-producing property in the same year that he quit his job, but we’ll set that aside.  The point is that Grandpa has moved into the Auntie Mame category, someone who can be a free spirit because he has the wherewithal to afford it.  And the rest of the family, Alice aside, are like Uncle Murray, freeloading off Grandpa and Alice.

It is understandable why this was omitted from the movie.  All of Grandpa’s philosophy strikes us as facile when we become aware of his income and net worth.  Better to let us imagine that the members of Grandpa’s family are like the lilies of the field, eking out a living from their hobbies, as unrealistic as that might be, than to find out that money can buy happiness after all.

But will Grandpa be in trouble now that the IRS is wise to him, forcing him to pay back taxes with penalties?  Remember that contrived story about the milkman they buried using Grandpa’s name, Martin Vanderhof.  Well, Grandpa provided the IRS with a death certificate with his name on it, telling them he was only Martin Vanderhof, Jr.  So, as far as the IRS is concerned, Vanderhof’s debt to the Treasury Department died with him.  In fact, Grandpa says the IRS has even decided he is due a refund.  Mr. Kirby wants to know how he managed to pull that off, presumably hoping to evade taxes himself.  I’m not sure what the IRS will do when they see that the supposedly deceased Martin Vanderhof is still receiving that income from his property in the years to come, but that will be after the play has ended, and the audience has gone home, after which such implications fade away.

I suppose it might be argued that the Production Code required this change when the play was turned into a movie, since it forbade allowing criminals to get away with breaking the law and living happily ever after.  But if that were all, the movie could have had Grandpa agree to pay the back taxes.  The real reason for the change is to avoid having us find out that when Grandpa says, “You can’t take it with you,” he actually has plenty of it to leave behind.