Variations on a Frank Capra theme

I recently re-watched Frank Capra's You Can't Take it With You and was struck by the many similarities to another Capra film you might have heard of: It's a Wonderful Life. (How this never occurred to me before, I don't know.)

One fairly superficial connection between the two movies is the list of actors appearing in both films. Of course both star Jimmy Stewart and Lionel Barrymore, but other actors with smaller parts in both movies include Ward Bond (Officer Bert/Detective Mike), H.B. Warner (Mr. Gower/Ramsey), Samuel S. Hinds (the dads, Peter Bailey/Paul Sycamore), Charles Lane (rent collector/IRS agent), Edward Keane (loan customer/board member), and Stanley Andrews (Mr. Welch/attorney). Also in both movies: Jimmy the Raven.

The plots of the films, however, are very different. It's a Wonderful Life (as you probably know, given the years of repeated showings around Christmas-time) focuses on George Bailey, a man who, in a time of despair, wishes he had never been born. Thanks to the appearance of his guardian angel, George gets the chance to see what the world would have been like without him, and ends up coming to the conclusion expressed in the movie's title.

In You Can't Take it With You, the main character is Grandpa Vanderhof, patriarch of an eccentric household of free spirits. His refusal to sell his house is keeping wealthy Mr. Kirby from achieving a monopoly. Complicating matters is the fact that Mr. Kirby's son Tony has fallen in love with his secretary, Alice, who just happens to be the granddaughter of Mr. Vanderhof. (It's funny to see how these two actually fit into each other's families better than their own: Alice is much more serious while Tony has little interest in business and would prefer the freedom the Vanderhof clan enjoys.) When the two families get together the clash of lifestyles and philosophies is extreme (and rather amusing).

While these two stories seem to have little in common, they do serve to illustrate some deeper underlying themes. One is the idea of money not buying happiness. The two richest characters in the movies are Mr. Potter and Mr. Kirby. One is described as a warped, frustrated old man, the other is called miserable and a failure. The value of friendships over money is highlighted with the ideas that no man is a failure who has friends/the only thing you can take with you is the love of your friends. Both movies have scenes where friends come to the rescue of the main character by collecting money when they learn of a need.

One big difference in the two movies is the way personal freedom vs. responsibility is shown. While George Baily has to give up on his dreams for the good of his family and community, the Vanderhof household is full of people doing only what they please. Fulfillment in one movie comes from self-sacrifice, in the other, self-indulgence.

While It's a Wonderful Life probably presents the truer, more realistic outlook on life, like Jimmy Stewart's character in You Can't Take it With You, I am fascinated watching the loonies in Grandpa's house puttering away at their various pet projects: music, writing, dancing, fireworks, candy-making (having fun regardless of their actual skill at these pursuits).

I understand why It's a Wonderful Life has gotten more popular that You Can't Take it With You, but I'd definitely recommend the latter, even if only to show Lionel Barrymore's range at playing total opposites in characters: the hated Mr. Potter and the very lovable Grandpa.

If it were up to me, these two movies would be packaged and sold together as a pair of bookends sandwiching a similar theme: Enjoy and appreciate life!


David Bishop said...

I do enjoy It's a Wonderful Life more because of the self-sacrificing aspect.

This post was really fun to read. I found the compare/contrast stuff extremely interesting. I hope to see more in the future.

Wendymoon said...

Thanks David, glad you enjoyed it! In my family we often do movie marathons where we chain together films by director/actor/theme, so I'm sure I could come up with more to compare/contrast.

Kate Gabrielle said...

Wonderful post! I actually prefer You Can't Take it With You, mainly because I can really relate to the wacky family. But both are so special and have such wonderful messages. I hope that after reading your post more people will watch You Can't Take it With You. It really is a hidden gem!

Sam Juliano said...

I am, like many here, a big fan of this iconic American director, and in addition to these two gems, I would add LOST HORIZON, MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, and partcularly MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON to his list of masterworks. But i understand the point of this post of course is to examine these two. YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU is an endearing film that I do revist, but I'll admit it's more dated and static than the others. It has it's rewards for sure, but it's not in the same category for one of the graetest of all American films. (IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE) Wonderful concept, terrific site!

AddThis Feed Button