You Can’t Take It With You (1938) tells the story of two young adults: Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) and Tony Kirby (Jimmy Stewart). Tony is the son of wealthy, greedy banker Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold) and his stuffy wife (Mary Forbes). Alice comes from a family that is completely opposite of Tony’s. The Sycamore family is delightfully eccentric. The rest of the family includes Alice’s mother Penny (Spring Byrington), her father Paul (Samuel S. Hinds), her sister Essie Mae (portrayed by a 15 year old Ann Miller), and Essie’s husband Ed Carmichael (Dub Taylor). The Sycamore family has many friends, who are often seen coming in and out of the home at any given time of the day. Some actually live in the house. Yeah, it’s basically a commune.
So, what connection do these two families have? It’s fairly simple…in a complicated way. Tony and Alice have fallen hard for each other and plan to marry. Alice is a stenographer working for the Kirby company. Tony is serving as vice-president of his father’s company. Tony’s father has secured a government-sanctioned munitions monopoly, meaning he is planning on buying up a big block of property around a competitive factory in order to drive them out of business. This block of property happens to include the Sycamore’s house. The only problem: the Sycamore family refuses to give up their property to Kirby (unbeknownst to Anthony, even after meeting the Kirby family). Enter Alice’s grandfather–Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore).
Grandpa Vanderhof is…well, I guess what you’d say is he’s more open-minded and free-thinking than Tony’s parents. He acts as the head of the family, serving as a father figure to Alice and everyone else. Despite his “social status”, he doesn’t let anything get him down, no matter how tough things may get. Vanderhof explains that he was once similar to Tony’s father: caught in a love affair with the almighty dollar. But one day he simply became disinterested in money. He walked away from his job position and never returned. Since that day many years ago, Grandpa Vanderhof spends his time doing important things that make him and, most importantly, his family happy.
I really fell for You Can’t Take It With You when I first watched it because of how it depicts Alice’s family. We’re not laughing at them because they’re eccentric; we’re going along for the ride with them and we’re all enjoying it. Sometimes films and books portray odd people as being freaks. But this one tells us that it’s not only okay to be different, it can be really cool. Essie Mae dances pirouettes around the living room, Ed plays his xylophone, and mother Penny writes all kinds of plays on a typewriter that had been accidentally delivered to the house years before.
Lionel Barrymore, per usual, gives an outstanding performance as Grandpa V. Audiences today are most familiar with his role of the vindictive Mr. Potter in Frank Capra’s holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Eight years before he became Potter, he played a man who was the total opposite of Potter. Grandpa Vanderhoff stands for a sort of bohemian lifestyle which is a really interesting thing to see in a movie from the late 1930s, at least in my mind. He doesn’t give a crap about money or social status and he openly questions the motives of the government, which you will see in the clip below.
Although this film was released in 1938, I’m sure at least one person who reads this hasn’t watched the film. So, I’ll put out a pretty weak spoiler alert from this point on –
I’m going to jump to the final scene of the movie just to illustrate the importance of Lionel Barrymore’s Grandpa Vanderhoff. After holding out on Kirby, Grandpa relents and decides to give up the house. Tony’s dad finally comes around, literally and figuratively. Alice has fled town for an uncertain amount of time and Tony has been beside himself trying to locate her. The story culminates when Alice returns home briefly, Tony sees her, and Tony’s dad enters the house. Alice is distressed because she’s sick of Tony’s parents not accepting her family. Tony is distressed because he wants to marry her no matter what his parents say. Mr. Kirby surprises everyone when he sits down beside Grandpa and the two play a harmonica duet. He finally gives his blessing over Tony and Alice’s engagement. The two families are finally in harmony.
This post is included in The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, hosted by “In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood” (crystalkalyana.wordpress.com). Be sure to check out the other participating blogs!