Study Guide

You Can't Take It With You

You Can't Take It With You Summary

There are two key plotlines in You Can't Take It With You. They're each important and interesting in their own right, but they're also so cleverly tied together that at the end you get a big happy bow. Frank Capra loves big happy bows. He wore them everywhere…. or he should have.

The first key plot involves the big bad munitions manufacturer, Mr. Kirby. Mr. Kirby wants to get a munitions monopoly, because alliteration, and also money. To do that he needs to buy up all the land around the factory of his chief competitor, Mr. Ramsey.

He does that thing, but there's one holdout: Grandpa Martin Vanderhof, an eccentric old coot. Vanderhof owns his house and loves his house (his wife died there) and he doesn't care about money, so he's not going to sell, no matter how many times Kirby's agent asks him to.

The second key plot involves Kirby's son, Tony, a vice-president at the bank, and Alice Sycamore, Tony's secretary. Alice isn't just Tony's secretary, though; she's also Grandpa Vanderhof's granddaughter. (The plot thickens.)

Tony is in love with Alice; Alice is in love with Tony. One thing leads to another, and then they're engaged. Unfortunately, the snobby Kirbys don't much like the idea of Tony marrying a secretary. How would they feel if they knew that secretary's relations were thwarting their business deals? Well, that's what you're here to find out.

To try to get Tony's parents to approve of a marriage, Alice invites them over for dinner. Tony gets cute though and brings his parents on the wrong night, so that they'll see Alice's family as they really are (note to prospective suitors of all genders: don't get cute.)

The dinner is a disaster. 

For one thing, the Sycamore family is extremely eccentric and goofy and generally not fit for polite company. Alice's sister dances all over the place, her mother is always writing on her typewriter, and her dad is making fireworks in the basement. Mr. Kirby is wrestled to the ground by the Russian dance teacher Kolenkhov, who always hangs out there because that's the sort of person who hangs out in the Sycamore place.

Then—because it just needed to get worse—the house is raided by police who have misinterpreted some party invites as seditious literature. 

Then all the fireworks go off. 

Then everybody goes to jail.

Mrs. Kirby is understandably upset by this turn of events. But she's also kind of a jerk. The upshot is, while waiting in prison, she sneers at Alice for being a lowborn secretary and trying to steal her Tony for his money. Alice is peeved and uses her kung fu abilities and there is a massive fight scene with ninjas.

Okay, actually, no ninjas. But Alice is angry. When they all go before the judge, Mr. Kirby lies about why they were all at the house because he's embarrassed to have Tony linked to the Sycamores. Alice shouts out the truth, though, and there's a big hullabaloo (though still no ninjas). Tony tries to tell his parents they're being jerks, but Alice feels he should have done that a lot earlier. She breaks off the engagement and runs out of the courtroom.

The news is in all the papers (there's a coming war in Europe and a Depression on, but apparently people in Capra's world are really interested in the domestic affairs of munitions manufacturers). Because of the scandal, Alice leaves town, and Tony doesn't know where she is. Grandpa decides to sell the house and move to where Alice is so they can all be together. 

Alas, true love is over, and the people on the street will have their homes replaced by munitions factories.

But then a miracle occurs (as they tend to in Capra films).

Tony tells Mr. Kirby that he's going to quit the bank and go study grass (no, really). Mr. Kirby realizes his whole life is hollow and pointless, and he quits. He goes to the Sycamore house and plays the harmonica. Tony is there trying to find Alice, and Alice returns suddenly to tell her dad not to sell the house. The lovers reunite and reconcile; Mr. Kirby learns the meaning of happiness. Even Mrs. Kirby seems like she's going to come around.

And now that Capra's gotten everyone to the point where they're happy, he's ready to say "The End."

  • Scene 1

    Scene 1

    • Mr. Anthony P. Kirby arrives at his office with lots of hustle and bustle amidst a gaggle of minions.
    • He goes upstairs importantly into an important meeting because he is important.
    • He pauses to greet his son Tony, who is very young and bored, but is still a vice president because he was clever enough to be the boss' son.
    • Mr. Kirby is back from Washington, where he got the government muckity mucks to agree to let him move forward on a monopoly of the munitions industry.
    • But to make it stick, Kirby needs to buy up all the property around his rival Ramsey's factory, thus forcing the poor schnook to sell.
    • Kirby calls his estate agent Blakely, who says he's got all the property except for one lone house. Kirby tells him he better get that house—or else!
    • Kirby's kind of a super villain.
  • Scene 2

    Scene 2

    • We travel through the phone (whoosh) to Blakely's office, where Mr. Blakely is talking to his friend Bill.
    • Bill thinks it's really funny that this old crank won't sell. Don't tease Mr. Blakely, Bill. His eye twitches when you tease him.
    • But though Bill didn't think the old crank (Vanderhof) cared about money, it turns out Vanderhof has come to the building; he's in the outer office.
    • But Blakely is sly. He's going to make that Vanderhof cool his heels for a while, if he wants to get that money.
    • Then the camera heads out the door to find Vanderhof in the outer office.
    • Vanderhof (on crutches) is eating peanuts, because that's the kind of carefree guy he is.
    • He has a conversation with Poppins, one of the clerks, who is adding up numbers.
    • Vanderhof draws Poppins out, and gets him to admit he doesn't like adding numbers. He's rather make little musical bunny toys instead.
    • The whole office is wowed by the bunny toy, but then Blakely comes out and is cranky and everyone scatters.
    • Blakely tries to get Vanderhof to take a check for his house… but Vanderhof just grins and tells Blakely that Blakely works too hard. Then Grandpa heads out to go to a school graduation.
    • Blakely is really annoyed (and who can blame him?) so he takes it out on poor Poppins, and almost throws his toy bunny to the ground.
    • Poppins grabs it though, and then decides to quit right there, scurrying after Vanderhof.
    • Poppins catches him in the elevator, and takes some peanuts.
  • Scene 3

    Scene 3

    • The scene opens at Vanderhof's home, the Sycamore family house, where you're introduced to Rheba the maid, Essie (who dances) Mrs. Sycamore (who writes), and Mr. Sycamore (who makes fireworks).
    • Also a very cute kitten, a crow, Mr. Sycamore's assistant DePinna, and Rheba's fiancé Donald. And Ed Carmichael, Essie's husband, who plays the xylophone.
    • That's a lot of characters! The Sycamore house is full of people doing goofy things.
    • Grandpa and Poppins come in as well.
    • The family chats about Alice, Mrs. Sycamore's daughter, who is working in a bank. (She's the boring one in the family, obviously.)
    • Fireworks keep going off. Mr. Poppins keeps trying to bolt and run. But Grandpa convinces him to stay. Very convincing, that Grandpa.
    • Then Poppins shows his bunny thing to Mr. Sycamore and Mr. DePinna, and they all bustle down to the shop. Guys do shop, girls do arts. The Sycamores are unconventional, but not that unconventional.
    • Grandpa dispenses folksy wisdom about how things are meaner and less American now than they were in the past.
    • Then Rheba calls Alice at work… and we bounce through the phone and out to Scene 4.
  • Scene 4

    Scene 4

    • We're in Tony's office, where Alice is his secretary. The two flirt and flirt and flirt.
    • Tony kisses Alice, and just then Tony's mother walks in. Drama!
    • Mrs. Kirby adopts an air of wounded magnificence and gives her son a look of death.
    • Alice figures she's in big trouble. Big. Huge. It's a reasonable conclusion.
    • We bounce up to Mr. Kirby's office, where his wife is trying to convince him that Alice is a problem.
    • It's tricky because Kirby is so busy with his own business dealings he barely listens to her.
    • Meanwhile, back downstairs, Alice is ready to leave, but Tony grabs her and convinces her not to cancel on their date.
    • Tony is very charming and convincing. That's because he's Jimmy Stewart. No one is more charming and convincing than Jimmy Stewart.
    • There's lots more flirting, Then Tony proposes (awww.)
    • Alice is uncertain because of Tony's mother's earlier look of death, but Tony assures her his parents are putty in his hands, and that he can convince them.
  • Scene 5

    Scene 5

    • The scene starts outside Grandpa's house; Grandpa goes out to the street, and all the neighbors mill around.
    • Capra likes people milling around.
    • The neighbors are all worried because someone is buying up their property. But Grandpa says he won't sell, so no one can build a factory there.
    • Blakely is lurking over in the corner with some thuggish-looking thugs, who are determined to make Grandpa vacate the house through nefarious means.
    • And we cut to the Sycamore basement shop, where the guys are trying to figure out a theme for their next fireworks display. Poppins suggests the Russian Revolution.
    • He suggests that Ed use his printing press to print up "Watch for the Revolution. It's coming soon!" and then put those signs in candy boxes to advertise the fireworks display.
    • Meanwhile, upstairs, the family tells Grandpa he had several letters from the U.S. Government, but they lost them all.
    • This is foreshadowing, in case you missed it.
    • Alice comes home and announces that she has a gentleman caller (that would be Tony).
    • Alice goes upstairs and talks to her Grandpa about being in love.
    • This isn't what most young ladies do right off in a romantic comedy, but this is a romantic comedy that really loves its Grandpas.
    • Grandpa talks about how he was in love with his wife, who died before Alice was born.
    • Lots of Capra cuteness. That's the Capra way.
    • Grandpa explains that he won't leave the house because it's where his wife lived (important plot point, because otherwise he just seems like kind of a stubborn jerk.)
    • Alice gives him a new harmonica.
  • Scene 6

    Scene 6

    • We're back downstairs now. Grandpa is playing the harmonica, when the buzzer rings.
    • Flurry! Excitement! Everyone figures it's Tony come to call for Alice.
    • But it isn't. Instead it's a bespectacled cranky guy from the IRS, come to talk to Grandpa about his taxes.
    • The tax dude tries to start a serious discussion about financial whatsis, but he's interrupted by the doorbell.
    • It is Tony this time (looking mighty spiffy in his suit) and everybody flutters and fuses. The IRS guy looks like he's sucked a lemon up his nose.
    • Finally Taxdude von Lemonsnout gets down to business.
    • Grandpa has never paid taxes, as it turns out. He owes twenty-two years back income taxes.
    • Owing twenty-two years of back taxes is a serious matter, Shmoopers. Grandpa just pooh-poohs it, but he can do that because he's in the movies. Don't try it at home.
    • Grandpa says he "wouldn't mind paying for something sensible" but says that paying the government for battleships and Congress, and the President is such a waste of money.
    • Alice comes downstairs to take Tony away, but Tony wants to stay and listen to Grandpa give the tax-dude what's for.
    • The taxman yells at grandpa but is driven off by Ed's xylophone and the fireworks going off.
    • Then there's a weird moment where Tony says the government might get him in trouble, and Vanderhof says he doesn't actually owe the government anything.
    • In the play he really hadn't paid his taxes; but Hollywood may be uneasy about sneering at authority in quite that way.
    • Anyway, Alice and Tony are about to go, but Essie's Russian dancing teacher Mr. Kolenkhov shows up for dinner.
    • Everybody sits down and Grandpa says a cutesy folksy prayer asking God to keep them all safe and healthy, and then they all eat.
  • Scene 7

    Scene 7

    • And now we're in a car with Tony and Alice on their way to the ballet.
    • Tony thinks her family is awesome. They talk about how everyone in her family does just what they want.
    • Grandpa apparently makes his money by appraising stamp collections.
    • They stop off from the ballet in order to sit on a park bench and kiss. Ah, young love.
    • They talk about how people would be happy if only they weren't afraid to pursue their dreams.
    • So Tony suddenly leaps up and runs off to become a pirate.
    • The end.
    • No, actually, that doesn't happen. Instead he just sits there and talks about how he wanted to figure out solar energy when he was in college.
    • (Pirating would be more fun.)
    • His old buddy Bob Smith wanted to do solar energy stuff too, but he has a wife and kids… so instead he's selling automobiles.
    • Tony is in banking, of course, which he doesn't much like, but the Kirbys have always done banking.
    • Then a troupe of street musician kids show up and the couple stop talking seriously and do a dance number. Capra's the kind of director who's always willing to stop things for a dance number.
    • Tony pins a sign saying "nuts" to Alice's back, and then the kids and Tony and Alice are run off by a cop.
  • Scene 8

    Scene 8

    • Alice and Tony arrive at a swanky restaurant. Unbeknownst to Alice, she still has the sign on her back, causing much hilarity.
    • It turns out that Mr. and Mrs. Kirby are there with a bunch of fancypants rich and influential people.
    • Tony realizes that the sign is still on her back so they back into the table so no one sees it and knock over a lot of stuff.
    • Alice is worried that her family won't be snooty enough for the Kirbys. She asks Tony to invite his parents to her house.
    • Tony won't answer her. Instead he says he's so happy he could scream, and he fools Alice into screaming instead.
    • Tony declares she saw a rat, causing everyone to panic. Chaos and hilarity ensue. Tony and Alice walk out; Alice still with the "nuts" sign on her back.
  • Scene 9

    Scene 9

    • Mr. and Mrs. Kirby prepare to head out for dinner with the Sycamores. They figure they'll humor Tony and he'll get over Alice.
    • The Kirbys aren't very nice. In case you didn't notice.
    • In the Sycamore house, Grandpa's playing the harmonica.
    • Ed is worried because he sees a person out the window. He thinks that this person has been following him (this is foreshadowing, Shmoopers.)
    • Alice slides down the banister and is all in a bustle to get dinner ready for the following night.
    • Cut back to a car where the Kirby's are coming. They are cranky. Crankiness is the Kirby way.
    • Meanwhile, the Sycamores are painting and dancing and generally going on in their chaotic way, when the doorbell rings.
    • It's the Kirbys. They've come on the wrong night. Whoops.
    • There is much awkwardness.
    • Really, they should just come back tomorrow… but then there wouldn't be zaniness, and it wouldn't be a comedy would it?
    • And it turns out Tony screwed up the days on purpose, because he wanted his family to meet the Sycamores as they are.
    • Let this be a warning to you Shmoopers; avoid honesty. Put on a false front whenever you can, or you'll end up alienating your sweetheart and making your parents uncomfortable.
    • The low point is probably when Kolenkhov decides to demonstrate wrestling by picking up Mr. Kirby and throwing him to the ground, breaking his glasses.
    • The Kirbys leave after that.
    • Or… they try to!
    • But then FBI agents show up.
    • Ed was printing notices about the "revolution" to advertise the fireworks show, and the police think he's really a radical Communist (folks were scared of Communists at the time.)
    • Whoops, and the police find the fireworks in the cellar. They bring up Mr. DiPenna before he can collect his pipe… and the pipe ignites the gunpowder.
    • KABOOM!
  • Scene 10

    Scene 10

    • Everybody ends up at the jail, including Mr. Kirby, who is very upset about the whole thing.
    • Grandpa's cheery though; he plays the harmonica and leads a song for everyone.
    • In the woman's jail, Mrs. Kirby is also super-unpleasant.
    • Grandpa tells Mr. Kirby to take it easy, and relates how he gave up working because he didn't like it. Mr. Kirby isn't impressed—and to be fair, Grandpa's constant cheerfulness is a little wearing.
    • Mr. Blakely shows up and explains he arranged the arrest to get Grandpa to sell the house. All on Mr. Kirby's behalf of course.
    • Mr. Kirby hoisted himself by his own stuffed shirt. That makes him even crankier.
    • Grandpa gets fed up and tells Kirby he's a big old jerk and a "dull-witted fool" for caring only about money rather than about friends.
    • Grandpa then feels bad for being a meany. He slips his harmonica into Kirby's pocket.
    • And then they're all taken out to go to night court.
    • Cut to outside the courtroom. Kirby's attorneys arrive, and the newspaper people realize Kirby's been arrested. There is much sputtering and stuttering and excitement.
    • We go into the courtroom, where there are a ton of people. (Capra likes crowds. They're very democratic.)
    • The crowd is all there to see the Sycamores, who are much loved. Awww.
    • Kirby pleads not guilty. Grandpa admits to disturbing the peace and making fireworks without a license.
    • The court fines him a bit, which seems fair since he almost blew up the street.
    • Mr. Kirby offers to pay it, but instead the neighbors all chip in and pay it. Everyone loves Grandpa. Even the judge throws in a little.
    • The judge says he can't dismiss disturbing of peace against Kirby unless he explains what he was doing at the house.
    • The Kirbys don't want to admit that Tony was courting Alice. Grandpa tries to give them an out by saying that Kirby was trying to buy his house.
    • But Alice is so angry she tells the truth, and she tells Tony that he's a jerk.
    • You may wonder what Tony's been doing in all this. He's just been standing off to the side, mostly.
    • Anyway, after Alice tells Tony off, the newspapermen burst in.
    • Tony is horrified, because Alice dumped him.
    • Mrs. Kirby faints.
    • General chaos ensues.
    • Alice runs away.
  • Scene 11

    Scene 11

    • The altercation is in all the newspapers, because in the past people were bored and had nothing to do but read about the personal affairs of munitions manufacturers.
    • And in the Sycamore house, everyone is sad. Alice is gone.
    • Tony shows up to ask if they know where she is; he's been searching for her without luck.
    • But they tell him to cut it out and go away; so off he goes back out into the rain (it always rains when things are sad.)
    • They get a very sad letter from Alice, who is lonely but feels like she can't come home.
    • Grandpa calls Mr. Blakely and offers to sell the house so they can all go and buy a place out of town with Alice.
    • Various businessmen are called and are all happy because now Mr. Kirby's deal has gone through.
    • But the people in the neighborhood are getting evicted.
    • They thought they were safe if Grandpa didn't sell, but he did sell.
    • Grandpa kind of screwed the neighbors over. (And after they bailed him out of jail, too.)
  • Scene 12

    Scene 12

    • Over to Mr. Kirby's offices, where they're all excited about the deal.
    • Mr. Kirby is in the conference room and seems kind of sad. He contemplates the harmonica and throws it across the table.
    • The other businessmen burst in and are about to bustle out all together again when Ramsey shows up.
    • He's the rival manufacturer Kirby screwed over by buying up all the land around him.
    • He accuses Kirby of being a heartless jerk. Basically the same things Grandpa said, in case you missed it the first time.
    • Ramsey dramatically keels over and has to be helped out.
    • Kirby grabs that harmonica again. Symbol!
    • Tony comes in. Mr. Kirby says he wants to make Tony president, but Tony says he's going to quit.
    • He doesn't like banking, which seems reasonable. So he's going to leave and maybe try to work on figuring out how grass uses solar power.
    • Kirby is deep in contemplation.
    • Then it turns out Ramsay died in the washroom of heart failure.
    • Ramsay's death is actually announced twice. Capra is not into subtlety.
    • So Kirby goes upstairs to the meeting.
    • Everyone claps when his elevator door opens… but then Kirby has them take him downstairs, and he leaves the building.
  • Scene 13

    Scene 13

    • Over to the Sycamores, where they're all preparing to leave.
    • Tony shows up. Vanderhof won't tell him where she is, but does suggest he stow away in a trunk and get shipped up to Alice along with the luggage.
    • But then Alice shows up to tell him he shouldn't have sold the house.
    • Tony tries to talk to her, but Alice won't let him.
    • Mr. Kirby shows up and asks Grandpa's advice about what to do about Tony leaving.
    • Grandpa suggests playing a duet on the harmonica. Mr. Kirby is skeptical, but he goes along.
    • Various other people join in and much hilarity ensues.
    • Tony and Alice come downstairs and Mr. Kirby says its okay for Tony to marry Alice. So all is well.
    • Everyone dances, Mrs. Kirby shows up and faints again.
    • And then at the end everyone is at dinner with Grandpa saying a prayer. Happiness all around.
    • The end.