Release Year: 1938
Genre: Biography, Drama, Romance
Director: Frank Capra
Writer: Robert Riskin, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart (play)
Are you happy? Well, are you?
Yes, you, Shmooper; right there, reading this. Are you thrilled to your socks to be reading this guide? Do your socks do a little happy dance and leap off your feet and go scurrying up your snout and tickle your ears at the mere thought of reading on to the next paragraph?
No? Well, for goodness sakes, what's your problem?
Stop reading immediately and go do something that tickles your socks and sends you into ecstasies of enlightenment and fills your heart with bunnies if you like bunnies, or tortoises if you love tortoises, or Klingons if you love Klingons.
Be. Happier. Now.
That's You Can't Take It With You in a nutshell.
Director Frank Capra is famous for uplifting tales of the awesomeness of America and personal fulfillment—think Steven Spielberg, but in black and white with fewer dinosaurs. The 1936 Broadway play You Can't Take It With You by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart fits Capra's enthusiasms perfectly: it's all about how you should stop working if you're sad, and go do something that makes you happy.
Basically, the whole film is a self-help guide, encouraging you to unleash your creative energies and stop being such an old stick in the mud. (Wait, you're still reading this? You should be off juggling, or raising wildebeest, or juggling wildebeest. Hurry up, now! Be creative already!)
As you can see, the constant hectoring to be creative and free-spirited can be a bit...irritating. That's what Mr. Kirby thinks, anyway; he's the high-powered bank executive who wants to push through a big deal. He needs to buy Grandpa Martin Vanderhof's house to do it, though. And Grandpa won't sell because he doesn't care about money.
Even worse for Mr. Kirby, his son, Tony, is in love with Grandpa's granddaughter, Alice. So you could see how, for Mr. Kirby, having Grandpa nattering on about creativity would be irritating. "Just sell me the house and get your granddaughter away from my son," is his feeling.
But overall, people other than Mr. Kirby seem to like to have good old Grandpa Vanderhof tell them to be happy: the original play won a Pulitzer Prize.
The film adaptation of 1938 changed several important elements. In particular, it made Mr. Kirby much more central, adding the plot where he wants to buy the Vanderhof house. The change didn't hurt the film's popularity, though; it received seven Oscar nominations in 1938 including wins for Best Picture and Best Director (Frank Capra's third Oscar). You Can't Take It With You also launched a number of other collaborations between Capra and star actor Jimmy Stewart, including Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946).
So chuck all your responsibilities and go dance or yodel or strum on a banjolele—or, at least, watch You Can't Take It With You for a couple of hours.
You Can't Take It With You seems like just an airy, fluffy romantic comedy. But, deep down, it is just an airy fluffy romantic comedy.
"Wait a minute, Shmoop," we hear you protest. "You're supposed to be telling us why this film is a dense, serious masterwork filled with seriousness, which will transform us all with its profundity upon deep study. What is this "airy" "fluffy" nonsense? Get down to brass tacks, Shmoop!"
But here are the real, honest-to-goodness brass tacks: Capra is a director who takes his un-seriousness seriously. The film is about how work and study and furrowing your brow will only get you sadness and humdrum forms to fill out.
Grandpa Vanderhof, the voice of truth, righteousness, and goofiness in the film states the main theme when he says that he used to be a good worker bee like all the worker bees, focused on making pennies and studying all the things you're supposed to study:
Then one morning, when I was going up in the elevator... it struck me I wasn't having any fun. So I came right down and never went back. Yes, sir. That was thirty-five years ago.
So the movie is worth studying because it takes its happiness seriously...and also, maybe, because it doesn't take its happiness seriously enough. After all, if quitting work would make you happy, everyone would quit work, right? Why don't people stop working?
Well, because they need to eat, care for their families, and pay for a place to live. Nobody talks much about Grandpa's money, but he seems to have enough to support an extended family in a house he owns without doing much work. He's supposed to get paid for appraising people's stamp collections—which sounds like a good gig, but what about people who don't have hobbies that can make them a good income for relatively little effort?
But don't worry—this film answers all those scary, real-life questions. Capra seems to state that all you have to do to be happy is choose to be happy. You can see why that would be a popular position; it means that you (yes, you) can make yourself happy if you want. And it means that if other people are unhappy, then it's their own fault for not quitting it all to dance or make little bunny toys.
But the truth is that people often are unhappy for reasons over which they have no control. They might have to work a job they hate because they don't have other good options. They might have serious health problems that make them miserable (unlike Grandpa's sprained foot, which he thinks is good fun because he's always wanted to have a chance to walk on crutches.)
You Can't Take It With You imagines a world in which all unhappiness can be solved with an attitude adjustment and a harmonica solo. It makes happy endings look easy.
And that's worth studying, because the idea that happy endings are easy can, in real life, can make it harder for people who are unhappy.
Ann Miller, who plays Essie, was only 15 when the film was made, even though she's playing a married woman. The ballet positions she had to do were so painful they made her cry—so Jimmy Stewart brought her candy on set. Because Jimmy Stewart is awesome. (Source)
Lionel Barrymore, who plays Grandpa, was really on crutches; he had severe arthritis, which would eventually force him into a wheelchair. (Source)
The Production Code which reviewed the film was worried that Southern audiences would be offended by the black characters, because they seemed to interact too familiarly with the white family. They were servants, but not servant-y enough for white racists. Ugh. People are horrible. (Source)
The play You Can't Take It With You had nineteen acting roles. The film version has a hundred and fifty three. (Source)
Capra identified strongly with Tony, according to his niece. In fact, Capra, like Tony, had hoped to develop solar energy while he was in school. (Source)
You Can't Take It With You But It's All Recorded on the Internet
The IMDB page for You Can't Take It With You, with links to cast lists, quotes, awards, trivia, and more.
Even More Info You Can't Take With You
Turner Classics has a big old synopsis, clips, and oodles of other info that will make you want to dance, write, and/or make bunny toys.
Capra, Capra, Capra. Also, Capra
Turner Classics has a big old stew of Capra info. Bios, filmography, photos… if you love Capra, this is the place. And you know Capra loves you too, kid.
Life Is But A Play
A 1979 television movie of the play. No Jimmy Stewart, no plot against the house—but a good way to see how the play differs from the film, if you can track it down.
"Good, Old-Fashioned American Optimism"
A lengthy, enthusiastic analysis of You Can't Take It With You, in all its perkiness.
Frank Capra Couldn't Take it With Him
Yep, even Frank had to go to that happy beyond. This is his New York Times obituary from 1991.
They Took It With Them First
The original script for the play You Can't Take It With You by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman.
"I Feel Like Screaming"
The official trailer, featuring the screaming restaurant scene from the film.
Home Sweet Home
A clip showing the goofy Sycamores in their goofy home, with dancing.
Is This Film Really Any Good?
An ambivalent review and summary with lots of clips from the film.
Listen to Grandpa
The 1939 radio adaptation of the film.
A Rap Session With Frank Capra
A lengthy 1971 interview with Frank Capra.
The director at the 1936 Academy Awards.
One of the Sillier Scenes
… in a very silly film. Alice looks on as Mr. Depinna poses, her mom paints, her sister dances, her brother-in-law plays the xylophone… and the dancing master stands disgusted off to the side.
You Can Barely Fit Them All On There
The advertisement for the film really lets you see how many characters there were in the movie. They could barely get them all on the poster!