Sometimes I like to rent super old movies from the library. So the other night I got You Can’t Take It With You, a screwball comedy starring a very young James Stewart from 1938. It won Best Picture that year, so this further justifies my selection.
On the surface, a wealthy banker’s son falls in love with a goofy girl from a (non-wealthy??) family which nevertheless has a huge house filled with extended relatives who pursue eccentric hobbies rather than have jobs. The girl’s family is a bizarre circus of falconry, ballet, painting, fire-cracker-making – all in the living room. At first the girl is ashamed of her family for being too weird, but then she decides the guy’s family is too snobby and judgmental. Ultimately, the rich family appreciates the odd family’s pursuit of their interests.
Most of the movie was pretty difficult to follow even with my advanced level of old movie-watching, due to extended shenanigans, plotting, hoity-toitery, and general old-timey-ocity. But there were some interesting PF-related themes as I look back: the plot was not a statement about class differences (especially as both families seemed financially secure, just manifested differently). It was austere vs. wacky rather than rich vs. poor. What you do with your money, as well as your life and time. I think the film’s title would indicate that the snobby family was wasting all of these resources in the effort to be snobby.
It was also about commitment to self vs. society: at one point the snobby father complains to the wacky grandfather that if everyone pursued their little dreams, nothing [important] would get done. The grandfather counters that many people’s dream is to go do things on Wall Street. So true! The point is that there is plenty of room in society for civilization to be advanced and important decisions to be made, so the important thing is to pursue whatever is of value to you.
One scene especially caught my attention: in the middle of all the hijinks, the IRS tax man randomly comes to the door. The quirky old grandfather patriarch of the bohemian family apparently has never paid taxes – “because I don’t believe in it.” I will just reproduce what follows:
Grandpa: Suppose I pay you this money-mind you, I don’t say I’m going to do it-but just for the sake of argument-what’s the Government going to do with it?
Henderson: What do you mean?
Grandpa: Well, what do I get for my money? If I go into Macy’s and buy something, there it is-I see it. What’s the Government give me?
Henderson: Why, the Government gives you everything. It protects you.
Grandpa: What from?
Henderson: Well-invasion. Foreigners that might come over here and take everything you’ve got.
Grandpa: Oh I don’t think they’re goin to do that.
Henderson: If you didn’t pay an income tax, they would. How do you think the Government keeps up the Army and Navy? All those battleships…
Grandpa: Last time we used battleships was in the Spanish-American War, and what did we get out of it? Cuba-and we gave it back. I wouldn’t mind paying if it were something sensible.
Fascinating FDR/pre-war-era comments about how the Government gives you everything, as well as how we probably won’t get invaded (or go to war anyway).
With taxes on my mind lately, it’s interesting to see taxes discussed humorously and at such length in an Oscar-winning movie. Also interesting is the historical detail that this movie was produced in 1938 – just 25 years after the Federal income tax was established in 1913. “Not believing in” – questioning – the income tax, though assigned to the “quirky old man” character, was still a relevant enough idea to be written into a major motion picture.
Now, 100 years since establishment, most people (including myself) probably do not understand how Federal taxes work or what they are really for. The Federal tax system is so huge, engrained, and old at this point that it is easy to go along not knowing about it. But it is generally the #1 source of income erosion (regardless of benefits), so I am attempting to figure out what it’s all about. I know I have been saying that – I am reading up on the history of taxes in America starting with the Whiskey Rebellion. Hey, it’s my way. I will let you know when I learn something. In the meantime, go get inspired by something random!