Bifocal Lens: You Can't Take It With You (1938)

Bifocal Lens: You Can't Take It With You (1938)
Published: Dec 11, 2013
Art-centric Capra classic gets shrunk, floor by floor.

The doubleness that orders both the Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde stories and the Oscar Wilde tale, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is about the conflicted inner and outer worlds of their protagonists.

Dr. Jekyll harbours an evil impulse (as we all do) that wants to get out—and does. Dorian Gray, bedevilled by the spectre of age that will ultimately fray his unassailable physical perfection, makes a wish on a magical Egyptian Cat sculpture (i.e., sells his soul, Faust-like, to the devil) so that he might be forever young and beautiful. And of course he gets his wish. It’s too bad, though, about his secretly festering portrait.

The doubleness that orders Frank Capra’s wonderful 1938, end-of-the-Great-Depression film, You Can’t Take it With You, is not an inner-outer one but, rather, a vertical one.

Vertical as in up-down, upstairs-downstairs, as in heaven-hell and, more specifically, as in the up-ness of Freud’s superego, floating at the top of his mind-diagram like a kind of heaven—the attic-like superego, the site of virtue and benign creativity—as opposed to the down-ness of the id below grade, the locus of all that joyful, exciting, galvanizing, scarcely allowable animal energy; the Chthonic id, generating creativity (pauseless, though perhaps a tad demonic) in the basement.

Here’s the schema upon which You Can’t Take it With You is constructed: there’s a comfortable old house, owned by Grandpa Martin Vanderhof (genially played by everybody’s favourite father-grandfather figure, Lionel Barrymore) that is home to a dearly eccentric family consisting of a beauteous unmarried daughter, Alice (Jean Arthur), a married daughter, Essie (a very young Ann Miller), who does nothing all day but study ballet (for which she has no aptitude), her ballet instructor, Boris Kolenkhov (the hilarious Mischa Auer), who is only there to cadge free meals, their flighty mother (Spring Byington),who paints (badly) and is writing a play only because somebody once left a typewriter behind in the house, and their father, who invents things in the basement (including—Vulcan-like—bigger and better fireworks). It is a loving, happy family.

The family’s pixilated existence is threatened however, by Alice’s having fallen in love with Tony Kirby (James Stewart)—whose mega-industrialist father (Edward Arnold) wants to purchase and knock down Grandpa’s house to make way for a huge industrial complex he owns and wants to expand.

But true to any Frank Capra film, big business can never hold out against homey charm. Capra is a great guy for assuring you that while you may not have enough to eat, humanity is essentially good and everything will therefore work out fine in the long run.  Who, for example, actually feeds the Vanderhot family?

Because of the Alice/Tony romance—the Capulet/Montague conflict rendered economic (against the backdrop of manic inventiveness and the creative imagination, warring with their bottom-line opposite)—the two families (the Edward Arnold wealth and power, the Lionel Barrymore cozy and benign creativity) are thrown into both juxtaposition and relationship.

Which takes us back to the verticality business. Tony’s father, Edward Arnold, may have the worldly power, but Alice’s father, Lionel Barrymore, is a kind of magus, a Prospero, presiding over his sweetly demented household—which is like a magic island.

And what ultimately saves this sparkling household of dear eccentrics is the power of the tripartite mind-model mentioned earlier: the Freud version offers a superego (conscience) at the top; a raw, creative, rather disreputable id in the basement; and a nice rounded melding of the two extremes in the middle—as the Ego. Five hundred years earlier, this tripartite section through the mind would have offered a heaven at the top, a hell at the bottom, and a Middle Earth in between.

The inept dancing, the mother’s pointless painting and playwriting, Poppin’s mechanical animals, the endless dining, the sweet loving kindness of artists free to make their art . . .

Grandpa Vanderhof’s household is saved by the coming together of the superego activities of his children (dancing, painting, writing) in tandem with the energies streaming up from the id-basement (the fireworks).

Early in the film, Grandpa Vanderhof offers haven to a sweet repressed little bookkeeper named Poppins—the irreplaceable Donald Meek—who works for the Edward Arnold enterprise and who builds (fearfully, clandestinely, on the side) dear little mechanical animals that pop up out of boxes to entrance everyone. Grandpa convinces Poppins to quit his job, come home with him, and join his son and the others in the basement workshop where he can settle down to make better and more complex mechanical animals. Which he does, gleefully. More fuel for the id—making animals in the basement!

When the noose of insistent, runaway economic imperatives begins to draw tighter around Grandpa Vanderhof’s circus-like household in the form of Edward Arnold’s rapacity in tandem with the outrage of the US tax department, it is the domain’s id-energies that save it and convert everyone else to the Vanderhof-magus way of life.

It’s the fireworks in the basement that turn things around. The fireworks, the inept dancing, the mother’s pointless painting and playwriting, Poppin’s mechanical animals, the endless dining, the sweet loving kindness of artists free to make their art—against all this, all these beautiful anti-bureaucratic superego and id-actions, nothing can stand.

In the end, Edward Arnold throws in the towel, too, forsaking his business empire for playing harmonica duets with his Grandpa—the two of them soon to be in-laws.   

GARY MICHAEL DAULT is a much-published critic, writer, painter, teacher and blogger who has left the city to live in a small town on the Lake Ontario between Toronto and Montreal.


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