In morality “plays” (whether on stage, in books, or on screen), we often are blessed by clear examples of what to do or what not to do. We see ourselves or others in characters. The best fiction, from Greek tragedies to comic books, is so well-written that it causes us to authentically sympathize with characters because of their righteous attributes and feel antipathy toward characters insofar as they have unrighteous attributes. We learn to rejoice in the truth rather than in iniquity (1 Corinthians 13:6).
From time to time I recommend movies that promote Christian ideals in one way or another. (Books are important too, but movies are usually shorter than books and thus easier to discuss in this forum. And, readers are probably more likely to watch a recommended movie than to read a recommended book).
If Hollywood has ever produced a movie for Christians to enjoy, You Can’t Take it With You is it. The movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1938, and Frank Capra won the Oscar for Best Director for this adaptation of the Kaufman/Hart play of the same name.1 The film stars Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, and James Stewart, and has an all-star cast of characters. If you liked It’s a Wonderful Life, you can’t miss with You Can’t Take it With You: The two films not only share a director, but also three actors (Barrymore, Stewart, and Samuel S. Hinds), and Capra’s trademark mix of mirth and poignance.
Here’s the set-up: With a second world war brewing, ruthless and wealthy American banker A.P. Kirby is all set to build a monopolizing munitions plant—except for one thing: He needs to buy the last bit of property. On this precious spot is the home of a large family of sweet, eccentric people—the Vanderhofs. In the Vanderhof household, everybody pursues his or her own interests (however unusual), treats the rest of the family with love and respect, and prays. The basement workshop produces fireworks, ingenious toys, and spoof propaganda. The patriarch, Grandpa Martin Vanderhof (Barrymore), stubbornly refuses to sell the homeplace, thus allowing the other families to stay put on Kirby’s land.
While Kirby and his real estate agents strategize to get the Vanderhofs out of their house, another complication arises: Kirby’s son Tony falls in love with one of Grandpa Vanderhof’s granddaughters, Alice Sycamore (Arthur). The two families are bound to collide, and craziness is bound to ensue. The two big questions of the plot are: (1) Will Tony’s and Alice’s romance become collateral damage of the munitions monopoly? And, (2) Will the Vanderhofs and their neighbors be able to maintain their carefree lifestyle?
But the more important questions of the film are for those of us in the audience. What are we doing to make our homes harmonious? Are we so focused on financial security that we jeopardize our psychological security? Are we more worried about attaining social status and conforming to culture than being authentically good people? Are we lost in the world, or are we what Vanderhof calls “lilies of the field,” enjoying the security of faithfulness to the Lord?
The movie is also about A.P. Kirby’s opportunity for a Scrooge-like transformation. Having never considered solving his problems with anything but a business move, he will be forced to choose between the biggest power-grab of his illustrious career and his son’s happiness. Like us, Kirby must decide if his allegiance is with his conscience or his wallet.
You Can’t Take it With You is currently available for free streaming for Amazon Prime members, and for download and on DVD at a reasonable price.