Monday, August 13th, 2007
I’m not sure led me to this thought, but somewhere in the middle of my recent first viewing of You Can’t Take It With You I realized that something, even outside of the screwball-comedy elements it might contain, reminded me an awful lot of Wes Anderson. Maybe I’m wrong, and it was just the insane collection of characters all living under one roof, varying from the father whose only form of occupation (professional or otherwise) seems to be creating, stocking, and inadvertently setting off a pile of homemade fireworks that would make the Weasley brothers envious, to the mustachioed Russian dance instructor who claims to only come over for the dinners and finds the discussion of why the sport of wrestling is the optimum hobby, since it sharpens both the body and the mind, to be ideal conversation for house guests (right before he lifts them into the air for a painful-looking living-room body slam).
I might be wrong, and it is only those sorts of characters that make me think of Wes Anderson, but I think in fact there is more to the comparison.
But first, I have to mention that “You Can’t Take It With You” is one of those classic cases where the screenshots make it look like the most boring movie ever made. For example:
I almost fell asleep pasting that photo in here.
And while no one would ever look at a shot from a Wes Anderson film and decide the movie is probably boring, I do hear people claim that his movies are boring, no matter how difficult that is for me to imagine. I suspect there is something in his subtlety that many people don’t wind up finding time to appreciate, as opposed to those of us who have dedicated ourselves so wholly to this director that we make excuses for. We have tried to explain away a quarter of W. Anderson’s films, because we have dedicated ourselves to him and his personality and his subtlety. But it’s more than that.
Anderson has so often used the same actors when he can, and that has given us, the viewers, something else to understand in our dedication to his films. When we saw Bill Murray in Rushmore, we came to understand him as a hapless, kind and gentle, but gruff and guarded individual. When he played that same character (more or less) in The Royal Tenenbaums, fans had an edge in getting more out of his limited role (and we alone die laughing when he says, “Where’s that red one gonna go?”). His character got the lead in The Life Aquatic, and perhaps that is what we most liked about it — that we fully understood the sorrow, and the effort to be both loving and protective of himself. We had seen it in Herman Blume, in Raleigh St. Claire, and now Steve Zissou.
There’s something fundamentally easy to get with Frank Capra’s films. You can understand that they are feel good movies, creating an American condition of hope for a nation escaping the throes of a Depression. This gets dangerous, however, in trying to understand his movies. What very often happens is Capra is far too often criticized for making naive characters, naive plot lines, etc. I think this is just as daft a criticism as is the claim that Anderson’s films are too “childish” or “silly,” or are “all set design.”
Capra used the same actors as often as he could, because of what I’ll call the “perpetuating character” idea. In “You Can’t Take It With You,” we find Jimmy Stewart, once more, taking up the guise of Capra’s Hopeful American, though Capra adds a new element to that character in this film. Stewart plays the son of a wealthy banker and is serving as his heir apparent for the big bank the family owns.
Stewart falls in love with his stenographer Alice (Jean Arthur, another Capra favorite), however, and the class issues are given full license to run amok. It is actually Alice’s grandfather, played by Lionel Barrymore, who plays Capra’s most idealistic character in this film. He finds his guiding principal in the Biblical sentiment that we can’t take our earthly riches with us to Heaven (hence the title), so why not enjoy the life we have here by pursuing whatever interests we have.
And so it is, under his roof we find Alice’s horribly dancing sister (and her xylophone-playing-savant of a husband), Alice’s mother, who types plays all day simply because a typewrite was delivered to the house by mistake once upon a time, the aforementioned firework-making father, and a motley host of other friends and family who take residence under Grandpa Vanderhof’s roof to follow their passions.
And I really think that’s where the Anderson-Capra connection came for me. Anderson writes stories about dreams, however lofty they are, and his characters pursue them. For better or worse, his characters are encouraged to live the life they want (whether by others in the film, or by Anderson himself). Dignan wants to be a bank robber/confidence man? Go for it! Max Fischer wants to build an aquarium for Miss Cross? “You can’t have $10,000, but how about $1,000?!?” “Margot, write plays (even if Royal doesn’t find them to be believable)! Chas, be an accountant! Richie, play tennis, go live on a ocean liner…whatever you want, buddy.”
Capra made films directed towards the idea of the American Dream, but I think the heart of it was individualism (despite Capra’s later involvement in the blacklisting of American filmmakers during the Red Scare). He had people stand up to money-men, not worrying about the social pressures or conformity, but instead focused on something grander — being a person we can respect. “You Can’t Take It With You” leads you to believe that self respect comes in pursuing your dreams and what makes you happy. I think Anderson would agree. So would Dignan.
See it for Dignan.