Study Guide

You Can't Take It With You Analysis

  • The Bunny Toy

    Poppins' bunny toy, which he made himself, symbolizes his passion… as well as the concept of passion in general.

    What do you like to do more than anything else? What job would you like? Do you want to farm ferrets in France, or dance the tango in Toronto? Whatever you dream in your daring-est dreams, this toy bunny is that dream made real.

    Does that seem like a lot of weight to put on a bunny toy?

    Well... we might agree with you there. Is the bunny toy so great, after all? Isn't it just kind of a piece of useless kitschy junk? Everyone stares at it in wonder, and it's supposed to symbolize those vast, worthless dreams—the opposite of Poppins' boring job. "I'm a lily," Poppins yells. But the thing he makes as a lily seems like it could come out of a not-very-adventurous toy store.

    But you know what else is a kitschy crowd-pleasing work of pure love that somehow also seems like a boring commercial endeavor? You Can't Take It With You.

    Capra's film trumpets the joy of idiosyncrasy and following your heart out of the boring accountant job and into an exciting life of adventure and making bunnies. But the movie itself is not especially daring or dangerous; it's a feel-good Hollywood entertainment where the guy gets the girl and everyone turns out to be nice deep down.

    The bunny, ears and all, is a symbol of the creativity in each and every one of you. But it's also a sign that that creativity needs to be kept within certain limits. Capra endorses feel-good, Hollywood-sanctioned bunnies… if he came face to face with the bunny from, say, Donnie Darko, he would probably run the other way.

  • Grandpa's Crutches

    Early on in You Can't Take It With You, Grandpa explains that he hurt his ankle when his granddaughter dared him to slide down the banister.

    GRANDPA: The thing I like most about it is the crutches, I've been wanting to walk on them ever since I was a kid.

    The crutches then are a sign of Grandpa's indomitable optimism and general playfulness. He is young at heart, which is, he shows, more important than being young of limb. Life can't get him down.

    There's a twist there, though (and not just of a leg.) The cast in the film isn't real, but the crutches are; Actor Lionel Barrymore, who played Grandpa, had serious arthritis. Capra wanted him in the part, so they wrote in a broken leg for his character. The crutches can be seen as a sign of Grandpa's optimism and playfulness. But they can also be seen as a cleverly scripted acknowledgement of a real injury.

    Grandpa isn't halted or deterred by setbacks, but in real life, spirit isn't necessarily enough to overcome hardships, even if you're a spirited old film star like Lionel Barrymore. Sometimes you need workplace accommodation too.

  • The Harmonica

    Grandpa plays the harmonica as a hobby—and since hobbies are the thing Grandpa is most serious about, the harmonica is a kind of symbol of his essence. And what is Grandpa's essence? The idea that you shouldn't work too hard. Play the harmonica instead!

    In the play, the harmonica becomes a symbol too of Mr. Kirby's lost, more cheerful past, when he played the harmonica and had a friend or two. Grandpa gives Kirby his own harmonica when the two are in prison, and Kirby takes it out and fiddles with it while he's closing his big business deal, and wondering if all the money is worth it. ("It isn't," honks the harmonica.)

    Finally, at the end of the play, Grandpa and Kirby play a harmonica duet, which prompts Tony and Alice to reconcile and everything to turn out swimmingly. Harmonicas; they're magical. (Also somewhat heavy-handed. But nobody said Frank Capra was subtle. Toot.)

  • "Home, Sweet, Home" Sign

    The Sycamore's "Home, Sweet, Home" sign is always dropping off the wall (often because fireworks have gone off, or monsters are destroying Tokyo, or because of some other disaster).

    Often when it falls off it conks someone on the head. But they pick it up and put it back up there on the wall again… every single time. The sign is cheerful, plucky, careless, and generally hangs around to add to the chaos. It's just like the Sycamore family; precarious balance and all.

  • Setting

    The Sycamore House, New York

    The live theatrical version of You Can't Take It With You was set in the messy, chaotic, goofy, enjoyable Sycamore house, where someone is always painting or dancing or setting off firecrackers. The house is the embodiment of Grandpa's ethos; which is—loosely—don't work too hard and have fun. Sometimes that means playing the xylophone; sometimes it means wrestling. Either way, the Sycamore house has enough room for you.

    The film has a good bit of action in the Sycamore home too. But it also branches out to other parts of the city—especially to Mr. Kirby's offices on Wall Street. The business serves as a contrast to the bohemian Kirby house. In one, everyone's buttoned up; in the other, everyone's buttoned down. Capra, by exploring locations other than the Sycamore home, helps to show how special the Sycamore home is: an island of do-as-you-will in a bigger world that won't let you.

  • Point of View

    Ensemble

    Frank Capra was big into community. None of that "eccentric artist in splendid isolation" nonsense for him. If he's going to have eccentric artists anywhere near him, they're all going to live together in one happy family, with traditional marriages for all. Capra loves democracy and America and Americans, and so his films are always stuffed with crowds of people bustling and democratizing together.

    Since Capra is so into groups and gaggles of guys and gals, it's no wonder that his narrative isn't so much "a narrative" as it is "a bunch of narratives." There's no one single protagonist wandering through You Can't Take It With You. Instead, the film follows a bunch of different stories—Grandpa, Tony, Alice, Mr. Kirby, and even bit players like Mrs. Kirby and Poppins get to share the story for a bit.

    You might think you'd be confused with all those characters, but the narrative is simple and slow. When there's a point that needs to be explained, it gets explained repeatedly and with care. (At the end, for example, neighbors on the street run around telling each other that they've lost their houses over and over for about a minute. Capra doesn't want you to miss that important point.)

    Overall, the narrative works less to rush forward, and more to tie everyone together. The plot is just there to introduce you to all these lovely people and get them together for the big celebratory happy meal and happy ending.

  • Genre

    Romantic Comedy

    Romantic comedies are love stories that make you laugh. So You Can't Take It With You obviously qualifies. It's funny, both in a 1930's quick-bantered way and in a totally slapstick way. And, besides being funny, it has a love story. Tony and Alice are in love, they overcome difficulties, and they end up happily ever after. That's romance, folks.

    The odd thing about You Can't Take It With You, though, is that it's a romantic comedy where the romance seems decidedly secondary. Yes, Jimmy Stewart was a biggish star at the time, and Tony and Alice do a lot of the work of propelling the plot forward over the fireworks and other hiccups. But their story (more central in the play) gets rather lost in all the back and forth about munitions buildings and Mr. Kirby finding his inner harmonica.

    You could say that You Can't Take It With You is a romantic comedy with bonus business dealings, maybe. Or you could say that it's a double romantic comedy. Tony and Alice are the more traditional (but less important) couple. But the main romance is between Grandpa and Mr. Kirby. At first they're at loggerheads, as Mr. Kirby tries to buy Grandpa's house. Then, Grandpa gets mad at Kirby:

    GRANDPA: You're poorer than any of these people you call scum, because I'll guarantee at least they've got some friends.

    (A sure sign that romantic sparks are flying!)

    And then, at the end, Mr. Kirby realizes that he should just chuck his career and go play harmonica with Grandpa. Tony and Alice decide to wed… but only because the main romantic plotline has been resolved. Before the lovers can get together, the two old dudes have to get together first. And while Capra may have a romance with his lovers, it's clear that he loves those two old coots even more.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The "It" in You Can't Take It With You is money. Money, money, and more money.

    GRANDPA: You can't take it with you, Mr. Kirby. So what good is it?

    Grandpa goes on to say that love is more important than money, and if Grandpa says it, who are we to argue? Still, it's worth pointing out that if money matters so little, it's odd to put it up there in the title. If no one cares… why care?

    Of course, people do care. Grandpa, and the film, are trying to get them to care less. But money was on everyone's mind in 1938, which was in the middle of a pretty serious Great Depression. Many people didn't have work; many people didn't have money. So the title is presented, in the film, as a reprimand to rich people for hoarding wealth and working too much. But not-so-secretly, off to the side, it's reassuring people who don't have any wealth and are working too little.

    So You Can't Take It With You means, on one hand, "Don't be a miserly jerk like Mr. Kirby." But on the other hand it means, "Don't worry if you aren't as rich and powerful as Mr. Kirby; you're still a good egg, as long as you've got friends—and a nice movie by Frank Capra."

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Comedies usually finish up with a happy ending. Few of them are as insistent on it as You Can't Take It With You, which actually concludes with Grandpa saying, explicitly:

    GRANDPA: Everything's turned out fine as it usually does. Alice is going to marry Tony. Mr. Kirby who's turned out to be a very good egg sold us back our house; he'll probably forget about big deals for a while. Nobody on our block has to move, and with the right handling I think we can even thaw out Mr. Kirby in time. We've all got our health and as far as anything else is concerned we leave that up to you.

    Grandpa's addressing God in a prayer at the dinner table—but he could just as easily be addressing Frank Capra, who's the one who carefully sets things up so everyone is happy and you know it. In You Can't Take It With You, good people prosper, there aren't really any bad people, and Grandpa makes sure to tell you the moral of the story.

  • Shock Rating

    G

    You Can't Take It With You came out thirty years before the official film rating system was introduced in 1968. But if it had been rated, it would almost certainly have gotten an all-ages seal of approval.

    There is no cursing, no blood, no gore, and no sex (just a bit of chaste kissing and hugging.) The Vanderhof family is a bunch of artsy hippies, but they're not the free love, drug-using kind of hippies. They're about as edgy as a bunny toy.