Study Guide

You Can't Take It With You Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur)

Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur)

Alice Sycamore or Alice Kirby?

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.

What's All the Confusion, Alice?

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.

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