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Theatre / You Can't Take It With You

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You Can't Take It with You is a Pulitzer Prize-winning 1936 Screwball Comedy play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, later adapted into a 1938 feature film directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Lionel Barrymore.

Set in New York during The Great Depression, the story centers around the Quirky Household of a quirky family, which includes the eccentric but kind patriarch, Grandpa Martin Vanderhoff; his daughter Penny, an amateur playwright; her husband Paul Sycamore, who makes fireworks with his friend Mr. DePinna; their two daughters, Alice, the Only Sane Woman, and Essie, an amateur ballerina trained by a crazed Russian, Boris Kolenkhov; and Essie's husband Ed Carmichael, a printer and xylophone player. Also in the house is the Sassy Black Woman maid and cook, Rheba, and her Cloudcuckoolander boyfriend, Donald. The main conflict of the work involves Alice, who is employed as a stenographer, falling in love with her boss Tony Kirby, whose wealthy banker father and snobbish mother strongly disapprove of the match, especially following a disastrous dinner party at which 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've got a comedy that's much beloved by High School drama clubs nationwide.

The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as Best Director for Capra (his third such 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'd been working in Hollywood for three years but saw his career really start to take off following this film. The play was later adapted into a 1979 Made-for-TV Movie, and still later as short-lived 1986 sitcom.

This work provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Villainy:
    • Mr. Kirby is stiff, prudish man in the original play, but the movie turns him into a ruthless, scheming business man.
    • While she's still a Rich Bitch in the play, Mrs. Kirby isn't seeking out any conflict, unlike the movie where she divulges into straight up insults.
  • Adaptation Expansion: Whereas the play had only 19 characters, there are 153 parts in the film.
  • 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.
  • Bigger Is Better in Bed: While visiting the Sycamores, the Grand Duchess Olga Katrina claims that this was absolutely true about Rasputin, with the implication being that she had firsthand experience in the matter.
    De Pinna: Tell me, Grand Duchess, is it true what they say about Rasputin?
    Olga Katrina: Everyone wants to know about Rasputin...Yes, my dear sir, it is true. And how!
  • Black-and-White Morality: The Vanderhoffs are kind, innocent and selfless folks while Mr. Kirby is a heartless business owner with few redeeming qualities. He is getting better towards the end.
  • Blatant Lies: According to the text, Mr. DePinna is completely bald, but when his hair loss is pointed out he tries to claim he's still got some left. This is averted in some productions where the actor actually does have some hair left.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: Kolenkhov.
  • Butt-Monkey: Mr. Kirby in Act 2. And while she doesn't suffer the same direct misfortune, Alice's reactions throughout Act 2 make it clear she's in similar misery.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: In the play, Tony tells off his father for giving up on the dreams of his youth, including being a trapeze artist and a saxophone player. Tony Sr. still has the sax in the back of his closet, though.
  • Caustic Critic: Kolenkhov's dour criticism of everything, to the point of a Catchphrase, is, "It stinks."
  • Chekhov's Gun: The harmonica.
  • Close-Knit Community: Vanderhoff's neighborhood. The community demonstrated to Kirby what the The Power of Friendship is about when everybody chips in to bail out old Vanderhoff in court.
  • Closer to Earth: Grandpa is still a kook in his own right, but outside of Alice, he's clearly by far the most normal member of his family. Alice is a minor example as well, as there's some hints of her having the family craziness in her, but for the most part, she's the Only Sane Man.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Most of the cast—certainly the Vanderhoff family.
    • Kolenkhov and Mrs. Sycamore probably take the top prize, however.
  • Community-Threatening Construction: The main source of conflict in the film version involves banker and defense contractor Anthony Kirby buying up all the land around a competitor's factory in order to put him out of business. He is all set to dispossess all the renters in the neighborhood, but he needs to buy the house of Cloudcuckoolander Martin Vanderhof, and Martin doesn't want to sell. (This plot element was an addition not found in the source play.)
  • 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
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: In the film, Anthony P. Kirby would probably sell his own grandmother to get hold of the Vanderhoff property. In the play, there's no implication of Mr. Kirby indulging in shady activities.
  • Culturally Sensitive Adaptation: Modern productions will have Donald and Rheba speak much more eloquently then the stereotypical way their lines are written. You may also see them joining the family for both dinner prayers as well in some versions.
  • Dinner and a Show: Chaos breaks out after Tony makes the unwise decision to bring his parents over to the Vanderhoff house unannounced.
  • Drop-In Character: A few subversions.
    • Kolenkhov pops in and is welcomed with open arms in each act, but in the first two acts he's there because of Essie's dancing lesson, and only comes in unannounced during the final scene. Still, he's welcomed in then despite everyone's dour mood, so this trope may be in play.
    • Donald walks in during the first scene, and his first two descriptions imply he hasn't known the Sycamores too long. But then he's still staying over late that same night which isn't questioned at all. Then both of the following acts start with him already in the house, only leaving one time to run an errand. Given there's no references to his home life, it looks like Donald was already starting to live there before the show began, and may have cemented doing so between acts.
    • Mr. DePinna came to deliver ice eight years ago, and struck a chord with the Sycamores. Rather than regularly coming back though, he just decided to never leave. Before him there was a milkman who stayed for five years. Lending to this pattern, Ed apparently came home one night with Essie and continued to stay afterwards. With all this in mind, it certainly lends credence to the idea that Donald has moved in with the Sycamores.
  • Dysfunctional Family: Subverted, the Sycamores are quite happy with their weirdness, as compared to the unhappy normality of the Kirby's.
  • Eek, a Mouse!!: In the film, Tony takes Alice to a fancy restaurant, where he teases her to the point of screaming. He then explains to the waiter that she saw a mouse—no, actually, "a rat with hair on it." Mayhem ensues as the couple calmly exits.
  • Ensemble Cast: The show doesn't have any true main character. The plot centers around the romance of Alice and Tony, but they're both supporting parts, with Grandpa and Penny being the leads, having the most stage time and lines. Still, outside of Grandpa saving the day at the end, it's really not their story.
  • Family of Choice: While it's never commented on, Mr. DePinna, Rheba, and Donald are pretty much members of the Sycamore family. This dynamic is a bit on display with Kolekhov, although it's less pronounced since he's not a member of the household.
  • Gray Rain of Depression: After the disastrous dinner party leads to everyone getting arrested and, eventually, Alice leaving town.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: "It's certainly going to be gay around here when you leave, Grandpa?"
  • How the Mighty Have Fallen: In the play, Russian Grand Duchess Olga Katrina works as a waitress at Child's restaurant. Her uncle the Grand Duke is an elevator operator.
  • 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.
  • I Just Like Saying the Word: Ed will print any random phrase he hears that he thinks sounds good. This gets him into trouble when he decides to print what sounds like threats against the government
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Mr. Kirby is a ruthless and cold-hearted businessman, but he has a sense of humor and loves his son very dearly. This is more pronounced in the play than the movie, as Kirby is still a stiff, but a seemingly ethical business man.
  • "Kick Me" Prank: The "Nuts" card on Alice's back.
  • Lady Drunk: Gay Wellington, in spades.
  • Large Ham: Given the number of characters who are nuts, this is bound to happen.
    • Kolenkhov is a loud, Russian dance instructor who enjoys wrestling, complaining about his country, and chewing scenery.
    • Being a writer, Penny has a flair for the dramatic, and cheerfully shoves her nose into other people's business happily.
    • Actors can be hammy. Drunks can be hammy. Gay Wellington is a drunk actress and she's most certainly hammy.
    • Essie spends a good majority of her time onstage dancing horribly.
  • Like Father, Unlike Son: Tony is nothing like his father and refuses to get involved with the old man's business.
  • Manchild: 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.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: A whole family of this kind. Though noticeably, the love story has the party from the more rigid family act more cheerful and carefree than the one from a family made up of Cloudcuckoolanders.
  • 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!"
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Penny's a playwright.
  • Nice Guy: The Sycamore family as a whole. And that includes Mr. De Pinna, Rheba, and Donald. Tony also counts, and he's on his way to become an official member soon. The Grand Duchess is also quite good natured. While he does indulge in his fair share of complaining, Kolenkhov counts too. Though depending on how the actor plays it, questioning his blame over wrestling Mr. Kirby can push him into Jerk with a Heart of Gold territory.
  • No Name Given: Mr. DePinna's never called by his first name.
  • One Normal Night: Alice just wants her family to not be weird over the course of one dinner party. It doesn't work. Tony actually Inverts this, as he realizes Alice will try to enforce this trope, and decides to bring his family on the wrong day so the Sycamores won't be prepared to play normal and his parents will know what kind of family he's marrying into. This backfired though when things go so terribly that Alice calls off the engagement.
  • One Phone Call: Anthony P. Kirby demands one when being locked up.
  • Only Sane Man: Alice, among her family. Grandpa also counts. Sure, he's also a bit of a nut, but he's by far the smartest character in the story, and clearly has a lot more common sense than the members of his nutty 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.
    • Mr. Kirby gets another one from his broke antagonist Mr. Ramsey in his office.
  • Rich Bitch: Mrs. Kirby is flat-out mean. And unlike her husband, we don't see any Heel–Face Turn, occurring.
  • Rule of Three: In the play, the tank of (harmless) snakes evokes terror three times before it's finally removed from the living room. In Act 1, it scares off the taxman entirely. Early in Act 2, it convinces the drunk actress Gay Wellington that she's hallucinating. So when a visiting Mrs. Kirby is terrified at the sight shortly after entering, it's an early warning that this get-together is not going to go well.
  • Running Gag: In the movie, the "home sweet home" sign constantly falling off the wall at the Vanderhoffs mansion.
  • Sassy Black Woman: It's The '30s, 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.
  • Stock Legal Phrases: The judge constantly calls for order in the crowed court room.
  • 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, much less the other things that taxes pay for like roads, bridges, schools, police, and the fire department. Instead, he blusters impotently about relatively remote aspects of government and tries to throw his authoritarian weight around.
    • That said, the reach of the federal government was still fairly limited in 1936, so Grandpa's question of "What do I get for my money?" had some weight. Most of the items listed above (schools, police, the fire department, bridges, most roads) were paid for with local and state taxes, not federal ones. Grandpa himself mentions the taxes funding Donald's "relief" in act 2 - but it comes in for comedy, since the relief is seen as encouraging Donald not to work rather than truly helping him during a time of unemployment.
  • 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.
  • We Used to Be Friends: Mr. Kirby and Mr. Ramsey. It only comes up near the end, but it has a powerful impact.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Mr. Kirby makes a Heel–Face Turn in the final act, but Mrs. Kirby isn't present for the concluding drama. It's most likely that she'll also accept the turnout though. The film has her appear at the end and Grandpa notes that they'll "thaw her out".
  • While Rome Burns: The second act of the play ends with a lot of fireworks exploding offstage and a lot of people wildly shouting and rushing about onstage. The imperturbable Grandpa, however, just says "Well, well, well!" and sits down. "If a lot of people weren't in the way," the script suggests, "you feel he'd like to throw some darts."
  • Word Association Test: In the play, Mr. and Mrs. Kirby are asked to play this game, writing down the first word they think of when Penny says a word. Mr. Kirby's answers: "potatoes—steak"; "bathroom—toothpaste"; "lust—unlawful"; "honeymoon—trip"; "sex—male." Mrs. Kirby's answers: "potatoes—starch"; "bathroom—Mr. Kirby" ("well, you do take a long time"); "lust—human" (Mr. Kirby objects when she explains that lust is a human emotion); "honeymoon—dull"; "sex—Wall Street" (for a reason she can't comfortably discuss).
  • You No Take Candle: Alright, it's not too bad, but Rheba and Donald's grammar is written as worse than all the other characters, including the ones who learned English as a second language and a woman whose completely drunk. Modern productions will have then deliver their lines in perfect English to avert this.

Alternative Title(s): You Cant Take It With You