Grandpa Martin Vanderhof. The guy who puts the, "You can't take it with you" in You Can't Take It With You.
No really—he's the guy that actually says that line to Mr. Kirby.
Yup, he doesn't care about money or material things—you can't take them with you, after all. But he wasn't always a pseudo-hippie with a passion for family mayhem. He used to be an uptight suit, just like Kirby. But then one day—way before the start of the film—he just realized he wasn't happy:
"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."
And ever since that time, Grandpa has done just what he wants — collecting stamps, sliding down banisters, and playing the harmonica.
The Sycamore household is Grandpa's house; everybody follows his path. No one works and everyone does as they pleases. Mrs. Sycamore writes, Essie dances, Ed prints; nobody really tries to make money… except for Alice, whose secretarial job seems to be mostly a hobby (she isn't concerned when she loses it).
Grandpa is in the business of spreading his gospel of indolence as well—as Mr. Kirby says, he sometimes sounds like he should be in the pulpit. Grandpa gets Poppins to quit his boring job adding up numbers in a real estate office by promising him space at the Sycamore pad to make his bunny toys. And, of course, he encourages Mr. Kirby not to work so hard either:
GRANDPA VANDERHOF: What if all your deals fall through? Might be a good thing for you.
MR. KIRBY: Man, you're crazy.
GRANDPA VANDERHOF Well, maybe I am, but I used to be just like you once. […]
This interaction really does have the ring of conversion to it—it's not that hard to imagine Grandpa saying "I used to be just like you once: a sinner!" instead of the implied "I used to be just like you—a greedy-guts!"
Work and money and jobs and worrying about bills and taxes—Grandpa shrugs them all off. If he needs anything, he trusts in God—and in his neighbors, who love him, and happily pay his $100 fine when he needs to get out of prison. Grandpa shows that if you have love, you don't need money. You just need, um, friends with money.
Or, maybe, Grandpa shows something a little different. Because… is Grandpa actually penniless?
Sure, he doesn't work at a conventional job. But Alice mentions that he used to make a lot of money in his old job. He also assesses stamp collections, a job that Alice suggests is at least somewhat lucrative. He even owns his own house, which wouldn't have been all that common during the Depression.
In fact, it's because he owns the house that Mr. Kirby isn't able to buy up the entire block. Mr. Kirby's neighbors are protected, not by Grandpa's love and friendship, but by his money.
That's the case for all the people who live in Grandpa's house, too. Poppins is able to leave his job because Grandpa decides to support him. Similarly, Essie and Ed and DiPenna can do what they want because Grandpa houses and feeds them. Kolenkhov comes for dinner every night because he can get a free meal… but that free meal is available because Grandpa pays for it.
However, Grandpa keeps insisting that money doesn't matter:
GRANDPA VANDERHOF: 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. While you with your jungle and your long claws, as you call 'em, you'll wind up your miserable existence without anything you can call friend.
It's hard to argue with Grandpa's logic here: friends = good, being a miser = bad. But the truth of the matter is that Grandpa is able to become a generous, "superior human being" because he's able to be generous with… his money.
Sure, he may not be as wealthy as the Kirbys, but he's comfortable enough to support his child, his grandchildren, his in-laws, servants, and as many hangers-on as he likes. He can take life easy because he's well off. You can't take it with you—but if you want a fun life playing the harmonica like Grandpa, it's not a bad idea to have some of that money on you here, in this life, where it will do you some good.
When you think "wealthy banker" you probably tend to think, "boring busy middle-aged dude." And Kirby is pretty much that boring busy middle-aged dude. He's basically the Monopoly Man. He wears suits and orders people around and answers phones and mutters about money. He's totally pleased with himself, and occasionally boasts about how tough he is. He's like a super villain, but without the colorful costumes or the powers to make it entertaining.
Kirby's a snob too, as you would expect from a stereotypical banker. He is pleased with his own importance, and sneers at folks further down the social ladder, like Alice, who he thinks isn't good enough to marry his son. He calls the folks in prison "scum," which really riles up Grandpa, who says:
GRANDPA: 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!
It's harsh, but there's something to it. Who cares about Mr. Kirby? Who can even tell him from all the other jerky bankers? He's just the boring foil for all the fun characters in Grandpa's house. If Frank Capra had decided to use a cardboard Mr. Kirby instead of actor Edward Arnold, who would notice the difference?
But Mr. Kirby is deceptive. He may seem like a big old boring portly banker, but he has depths. Over the course of the film you learn he's had hobbies in the past: he likes to play the harmonica, and he used to be a wrestler. He's also very committed to his son. He makes Tony a vice-president, and then wants to make him president. He even laughs at Tony's jokes… which can be cornier than Iowa in July.
In fact, it's his love for his bouncing baby boy that makes ol' Kirby crawl out of his Monopoly Man shell. Once he realizes that his son is angry with him, he starts to come around to Grandpa's wisdom. Just check out this snippet of dialogue:
MR. KIRBY: Mr. Vanderhof, you once told me I was a failure as a father.
GRANDPA VANDERHOF: Oh, I didn't mean that.
MR. KIRBY: I know, but I am.
Aww. Isn't that sweet? We realize, in fact, that a lot of Kirby's money-grubbing has stemmed from looking out for his son in the way that he thinks he should. He makes a lot of money… for his son. He dislikes the Kirbys because a) they won't sell him their house, but also because b) he doesn't think they're good enough for his precious Tony:
MR. KIRBY: Boys like Tony don't marry stenographers.
But once he realizes that Tony has found true love with one very special stenographer, old Kirby realizes that he wants to be more like Grandpa. Grandpa teaches Mr. Kirby not to fear, and so Mr. Kirby starts embrace his inner harmonica player. In fact, now that his stuffy notions of duty to his son have gone out the window, Kirby can afford to do some soul-searching.
Of course, in real life, bankers don't usually sell back your house because you've leant them a harmonica. But perhaps Mr. Kirby was always a nice banker all along (even if he did hound poor Ramsey to his death). Or maybe Hollywood is nicer than real life. In Capra's world, even bankers are good eggs.
"I'm a left-handed guy," Tony tells Alice. He doesn't mean he's literally left-handed; what he means is that he's a bit of an odd duck.
Of course, Alice's family is filled with odd ducks; they're all bohemian goof-balls bouncing around the house dancing, painting and setting off fireworks—because setting off fireworks seems like a fun thing to do.
Alice's family, though, are all goofy in one particular way each; Essie dances all over the place; Alice's dad makes fireworks. Tony is a bit different. He's not eccentric, and he doesn't have any hobby that he's devoted to. Instead, he's just funny and quick-witted:
ALICE SYCAMORE: Have you ever been in a monastery?
TONY KIRBY: No, but I'm the fella who got caught in a cave once.
ALICE SYCAMORE: Were you? Whatever happened to you?
TONY KIRBY: Well, the cave caved in and I haven't been heard from since.
Part of this is Tony being in love and filled with joy and nuttiness (life is chasing around inside him like a squirrel, as Kolenkhov says.) But part of it is just Tony—and perhaps Jimmy Stewart, who was an incredibly charming actor.
In fact, even when Tony/ Jimmy Stewart ends up trailing off and bungling a joke, it's charming:
TONY: We can't just pop out of the building with no place to go. Very bad idea that, you know. I know two people that did that once—they went out of the building, they were uncertain, so they just walked and walked and walked and finally they just died... of hunger. Now you wouldn't want anything like that to happen... because if, if that happened... you're so beautiful.
For some actors, this dialogue would be cutesy. If Tom Cruise said that, Alice Sycamore would throw up in her mouth and run for the hills (not necessarily in that order.) But Jimmy Stewart can pull it off, because he is the Jimmy Stewart-est.
One goofy, whimsical thing Tony does is to deliberately get the date wrong when his parents are supposed to visit the Sycamores. This works out badly, and Alice is mad at him—but it's interesting that Tony thought this was a good idea in the first place.
TONY: I want them to meet you as you are, not some trumped up evening with everybody acting unnaturally.
The truth is that Tony seems almost as much in love with Alice's family as with Alice herself. He wants his parents to meet Grandpa & Co because he's proud of them. He thinks they're funny and fun and wise, and he looks absolutely delighted when Grandpa tells off the tax collector.
TONY [to Alice]: You know everybody's afraid to live.
But the Sycamores don't seem afraid to live from his point of view. Tony, stuck in his boring bank job because all Kirbys are bankers, finds that appealing.
When Alice breaks up with him at the end, Tony finally gets the courage to leave his job, and go pursue his dream of developing solar energy. Alice leaving makes Tony embrace his own inner dreamer. And after Alice comes back, it's not so hard to imagine that Tony might want to just stay in that old house with her, occasionally playing the xylophone with Ed.
Tony marries Alice because he was a Sycamore all along.
Alice is a central character in You Can't Take It With You… and yet, she doesn't exactly make sense.
Look at her from one angle, and Alice seems a free-spirited, high-flying, good-natured egg like the rest of the folks in her family. She loves to slide down the banister, she gives Grandpa a harmonica, and she dances in the park with Tony. She's following the Sycamore can't-take-it-with-you ethos and she's enjoying doing it.
But, look at her from another angle, and things look a little different. Alice got an actual honest-to-goodness boring job after all; she's a stenographer in a bank, which doesn't seem very carefree or jolly. She's extremely concerned about making a good impression on the Kirbys, and she seems at least a bit embarrassed by her family; she begs Essie not to dance for Tony, for example.
Even more puzzling, Alice refuses to consider marrying Tony unless his parents approve of her. She says she doesn't want Mrs. Kirby looking at her like a "goop," and she seems concerned that people will think she's a gold-digger. She's worried about respectability, in other words… even though none of the rest of the family is and despite the fact that sometimes (like when she slides down the banister) she doesn't seem so concerned with respectability at all.
The film doesn't do a very good job of explaining Alice's conflict or uncertainty around her family. Part of this seems to be the transition from the play to the film; in the theatrical production, Alice was more embarrassed of her family, and less of a free spirit herself.
But that isn't the case in the film. Why is Alice working as a secretary? Does she need the money? Is she trying to distance herself from her goofy family by holding down a real job? Does she want to be more sedate and responsible?
It doesn't exactly seem like it, what with her sliding down the banister and giving her grandpa gifts on a whim ("Anytime I get an impulse to get you something, that's your birthday"). Capra makes her more goofy and sympathetic, but as a result her motivations don't make a whole lot of sense.
She's proud, and tells off the Kirbys for being condescending to her:
ALICE: [to the Kirby family] The next time you want to go slumming, stay away from our neighborhood!
But if she's as free-spirited and unbound by convention as the rest of her clan (as she seems to be) why is she intermittently embarrassed by them? And why is she so concerned about getting the Kirbys' approval to marry anyway? The Sycamores seem like a family where they'd cheer on an elopement.
Most of these questions don't really have answers. In the play, Alice's story is the central point; it's a play about her getting married. The movie, though, is more about Mr. Kirby. Alice's motivations don't matter so much, because Capra was less interested in the narrative about a girl getting married than in the one about the rich guy being transformed. Alice becomes a convenient (if not entirely coherent) plot point in someone else's story.
You'd almost feel bad for her… if she weren't so cheery all the time.
There are a lot of characters in You Can't Take It With You; the screenplay calls for more than a hundred and fifty parts. Many of these are just faces in a crowd, or folks passing through. With so many characters, there's not space in the film to do much more than give them each a cute characteristic apiece—or at best, a hobby.
Kirby's extremely stressed out real estate agent. You can tell he's extremely stressed out because he has a tic; his face keeps flinching. Grandpa makes fun of him for it, which seems like a pretty mean thing to do. But then, Mr. Blakely isn't very nice either—he did conspire to get Grandpa and everyone arrested, after all. So maybe it all works out.
Essie's husband Ed likes to play the xylophone, print up leaflets, and catch Essie when she jumps into his arms. He often seems a bit confused, but that could happen to anyone living in the Sycamore house.
Alice's sister, Essie, loves dancing (even though she's not especially good at it, according to her cranky Russian dance instructor). But Grandpa doesn't mind as long as she's happy. And Essie does seem pretty carefree.
Donald is Rheba's fianceé, and he does odd jobs around the Sycamore house. He's also receiving relief, or unemployment; that was very common for people during the Depression. It's not clear whether the Sycamores are paying Donald for his work; hopefully they are. Otherwise they're kind of jerks.
Mr. DePinna's the iceman, who showed up nine years before the film and stayed to help Mr. Sycamore work on fireworks in the basement. He also dresses up as a discus thrower so Mrs. Sycamore can paint him. As a personality he's not that distinguishable from Mr. Sycamore, but he helpfully adds to the chaos in the Sycamore house.
The IRS agent is there to sputter while Grandpa looks clever. No wonder he looks so cranky; who wants to let the other guy get all the good lines?
Mrs. Kirby is a big ol' snob who doesn't want her son marrying that awful stenographer. Actress Mary Forbes does a great job throughout the film looking like an unpleasant animal has crawled up her nose.
There's a moment at the very end where Kolenkhov whispers something to her and she starts to laugh and loosen up, though it's not clear what he could possibly have told her to make her happy. Perhaps he said it was all a dream and Tony wasn't marrying Alice after all? Or that he had a surefire cure for getting small animals out of her nose?
Kolenkhov is probably the most entertaining of the funny bit parts. The actor Mischa Auer grimaces and mugs his way through the part, thoroughly enjoying himself as a dour Russian who is filled with joy at the chance to declare that everything stinks. At the time of the film, Russia was deep in the throws of Stalinism, so Kolenkhov is presumably a fugitive—which makes it all the more ironic that he is arrested (along with the rest of the household) for spreading seditious Communist propaganda.
Capra is a big fan of democracy and the awesomeness of the United States, so he makes his night court judge a thoroughly friendly guy, who tries to be fair and kind and even tosses in a bit to pay off Grandpa's fine. If you go to court yourself, don't expect the judge to be like this. You will probably be disappointed.
Actor Donald Meek almost always played characters who were—well, meek. Poppins is one of his more famous roles, in which he does his usual thing, stuttering and trembling and generally meek-ing.
Of course, in You Can't Take It With You, Poppins gets to come out of his shell, and embrace his inner tinkerer and prankster by making toy bunnies and scary masks. His story is an early foreshadowing of Kirby, who also by the end of the film gives up his tedious pursuit of money and numbers (though Kirby doesn't make toy bunnies, admittedly. Maybe some day, though.)
Ramsey is the guy who Kirby ruins by buying up all the land around his munitions factory. Ramsey used to be Kirby's friend, but Kirby is so ruthless he doesn't care. So poor Ramsey has a heart attack.
And then Kirby changes his mind, and sells Grandpa's house back to him… which means that Ramsey wasn't so ruined after all, and could have gone on with his business happily. But of course Ramsey can't do that because he's dead.
Not that anyone cares; the film pretty much completely forgets that Ramsey exists, and paddles on with Mr. Kirby cheerfully playing the harmonica. You'd think Kirby would feel guilty, but that would put a shadow over the happy ending, so Capra just forgets about it. Sometimes you need to kill a couple of business rivals to find your inner harmonica player. That's the way it goes.
(Disclaimer: Shmoop does not condone the accidental murder of business rivals in the pursuit of musical goals.)
Rheba doesn't dance or paint or write or build fireworks; she works as a servant.
For the time period, having Rheba (who's black) interact so cheerfully with the family was potentially controversial; racists didn't like it. So in that sense you could see the film as progressive or forward-looking. The fact remains though that in a film devoted to the idea that everyone should follow their bliss, Rheba's bliss is presented as involving setting the table and running errands for someone else's family. It would have been nice if she'd been able to make toy bunnies too.
This is Alice's dad, who seems oddly uninterested in the fact that his daughter is getting married. Sure, he's playing around with his fireworks, but wouldn't you think he'd be a bit more involved?
Of course, the reason he isn't is that the star of the movie is Lionel Barrymore, who plays Grandpa… not Samuel S. Hinds who plays Mr. Sycamore. There's only so much room in a film, and Barrymore takes the role of the concerned family member. So Mr. Sycamore comes off as a pretty callous father figure.
Penelope is Alice's mom, who writes and paints and occasionally picks up an extremely cute kitten. We learn from Alice that Mrs. Sycamore started writing because someone accidentally delivered a typewriter to the house.
She writes by chance, as a casual hobby, not because she's actually committed to it or passionate about it (she is just as happy painting). The Sycamores like the arts—but they seem careful not to like them too much. If Essie were to actually get a job dancing, or Mrs. Sycamore were to sell a manuscript, art would become work.