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Theatre: You Can't Take It with You

You Can't Take It with You is a 1936 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedic play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, later adapted into a 1938 film starring Lionel Barrymore and James Stewart, and a forgotten 1987 syndicated television series.

Set during The Depression, the plot is centered around the lives of the Quirky Household of the Sycamore family. The household includes eccentric but kind patriarch Grandpa Martin Vanderhoff; his daughter Penny, an amateur playwright; her husband Paul, who is a fireworks engineer with his friend Mr DePinna; and their two daughters Alice, the Only Sane Woman; and Essie, an amateur ballerina trained by a crazed Russian; Boris Kolenkhov and wife of Ed, a printer and xylophone player. Also in the house is the Sassy Black Woman maid Rheba and her Cloudcuckoolander boyfriend, Donald. The main conflict of the work involves Alice falling in love with Tony Kirby and how Tony's wealthy banker father, Anthony P. Kirby and his snobbish mother strongly disapprove of the match, especially after a disastrous Dinner Party where the families were supposed to become acquainted. Throw into the mix a drunken actress, Gay Wellington; an exiled Russian Countess, Olga Katrina; and various FBI and IRS agents, and you have a play beloved by High School drama clubs nationwide.

The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1938, as well as Best Director for Frank Capra; it was Capra's third award in five years after previously winning for It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. It was also something of a Star-Making Role for Stewart, who had been working in Hollywood since 1935 but saw his career really start to take off following this film. The movie does suffer from Adaptation Expansion—it has 153 characters as opposed to only 19 in the play.

This Work Shows Examples Of:

  • Adaptation Expansion
  • Adapted Out: Interestingly, despite all the extra characters added for the film, the character of Gay Wellington was eliminated.
  • Be Yourself: Grandpa Vanderhoff's philosophy, which he passes down to his family, explaining their strange behavior.
  • Butt Monkey: Mr. Kirby in Act 2.
  • The Cast Showoff: Inverted. Ann Miller was a professional dancer. Her character, Essie, is a terrible dancer.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Most of the cast—certainly the Vanderhoff family.
    • Kolenkhov and Mrs. Sycamore probably take the top prize, however.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Who does Tony Kirby employ as his secretary? The granddaughter of the man who owns the house that Anthony P. Kirby desperately needs to buy.
  • Cool Old Guy: Grandpa
  • Dinner and a Show: Chaos breaks out after Tony makes the unwise decision to bring his parents over to the Vanderhof house unannounced.
  • Dysfunctional Family: Subverted, the Sycamores are quite happy with their weirdness, as compared to the unhappy normality of the Kirby's.
  • Gray Rain of Depression: After the disastrous dinner party leads to everyone getting arrested and, eventually, Alice leaving town.
  • Husky Russkie: Kolenkhov, played in the movie by Mischa Auer.
  • Idiot Ball: Fine, they were just trying to advertise their fireworks, but maybe sending out fliers about the Red Revolution coming was not a good idea.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Mr. Kirby is a ruthless and cold-hearted businessman, but he loves his son very dearly.
  • Lady Drunk: Gay Wellington, in spades.
  • Man Child: Paul is the proud owner of an erector set.
    Mr. Kirby: Do you use this as a model of some sort?
    Paul: No, I just play with it.
  • Meaningful Echo: In the movie, when Grandpa Vanderhoff invites Mr. Poppins to stay with them, Mr. Poppins wants to know who takes care of all of them. Grandpa informs him, "The same one who takes care of the lilies of the field," and invites him to become a lily. Some moments later, when Mr. Poppins decides to quit his job on the spot, he rushes out to Grandpa Vanderhoff and says, "The die is cast; I'm a lily!"
  • Meddling Parents: The Kirbys.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Penny's a playwright.
  • Nice Guy: Tony.
  • One Normal Night: Alice just wants her family to not be weird over the course of one dinner party. It doesn't work.
  • Only Sane Man: Alice, among her family.
  • Pretty in Mink: Mrs. Kirby wears a long white ermine cape.
  • Quirky Household: Well, there's the guy who makes toys and the two people who makes fireworks and the mom who thinks she's a playwright and the would-be dancer and her husband who plays the xylophone and a crow who flies around everywhere. Yep, it qualifies.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Grandpa Vanderhoff delivers a masterful one to Mr. Kirby while they're both in the drunk tank in the film.
    Kolenkhov: You're not a businessman, you're like a lion in the jungle!
    Mr. Kirby: Yes, and I've got the longest and the sharpest claws, too! That's how I got where I am, on top, and scum like this is still in the gutter!
    Vanderhoff: You're an idiot, Mr. Kirby! A stupid idiot!
    Mr. Kirby: You can't talk to me like that!
    Vanderhoff: Oh, yes I can! "Scum", are we? What makes you think you're such a superior human being? Your money? If you do you're a dull-witted fool, Mr. Kirby, and a poor one at that. You're poorer than any of these people you call "scum", because I'll guarantee at least they've got some friends. But you, with your jungle and your long claws, as you call them, you'll wind up your miserable existence without anything you can call a friend. You may be a high mogul to yourself, Mr. Kirby, but to me you're a failure. A failure as a man, a failure as a human being, even failure as a father. When your time comes, I doubt if a single tear will be shed over you. The world will probably cry "good riddance!" That's a nice prospect, Mr. Kirby, I hope you'll enjoy it. I hope you'll get some comfort out of all this coin you've been sweating over then.
  • Rich Bitch: Mrs. Kirby is flat-out mean.
  • Sassy Black Woman: It's The Thirties, so naturally the maid is this.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: The Sycamores.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: The Kirbys, except for Tony.
  • Slobs Versus Snobs: A central conflict (although the Vanderhoffs are more bohemian Cloudcuckoolanders than actual slobs), most notable during the dinner scene. The movie comes down pretty hard against the snobs.
  • Strawman Political: Mr. Henderson, the IRS agent. When he interviews Martin about his 24 years of income tax evasion, at no time does he present a reasonably persuasive argument about paying taxes such as supporting the New Deal programs that unemployed people like Donald are using to get by. Instead, he blusters impotently about relatively remote aspects of government and tries to throw his authoritarian weight around.
  • Title Drop: Grandpa drops the title in reference to Mr. Kirby's wealth... It's the Aesop, after all.
    Vanderhoff: You can't take it with you, Mr. Kirby, so what good is it?
  • Twitchy Eye: One of Mr. Kirby's minions, who is desperately trying to force Vanderhoff to sell.
  • Written-In Infirmity: Shortly before filming began, Lionel Barrymore lost the use of his legs to crippling arthritis and a hip injury. To accommodate him, the script was altered so that his character had a broken leg, and Barrymore did the film on crutches.


Twentieth CenturyScrewball ComedyUnfaithfully Yours
White House DownCreator/Columbia PicturesZero Dark Thirty
A Star Is BornAcademy AwardThe Adventures of Robin Hood
The Lady VanishesFilms of the 1930sBeau Geste
Of Thee I SingPulitzer PrizeOur Town
The Yeomen of the GuardTheatrical ProductionsZanna, Don't!

alternative title(s): You Cant Take It With You
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