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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 film (directed by Frank Capra, starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Lionel Barrymore), and still later as a forgotten 1987 syndicated television series.

Set during The Great 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 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 had been working in Hollywood since 1935 but saw his career really start to take off following this film.

This work provides examples of:

  • 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.
  • 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.
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  • Boisterous Bruiser: Kolenkhov.
  • Butt-Monkey: Mr. Kirby in Act 2.
  • 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.
  • 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: Anthony P. Kirby would probably sell his own grandmother to get hold of the Vanderhoff property.
  • Dinner and a Show: Chaos breaks out after Tony makes the unwise decision to bring his parents over to the Vanderhoff house unannounced.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • "Kick Me" Prank: The "Nuts" card on Alice's back.
  • Lady Drunk: Gay Wellington, in spades.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • One Phone Call: Anthony P. Kirby demands one when being locked up.
  • 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.
    • Mr. Kirby gets another one from his broke antagonist Mr. Ramsey in his office.
  • Rich Bitch: Mrs. Kirby is flat-out mean.
  • 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 vs. 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.
  • While Rome Burns: The first 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).

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


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