The movie opens on Wall Street with Mr. A. P. Kirby (Edward Arnold, Jim Taylor of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) arriving at Kirby & Co where his plans for the establishment of a munitions monopoly are proceeding. It turns out that one man stands in the way of Kirby’s huge deal, because he does not want to sell his family home. This other man, Martin “Grandpa” Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore, Mr. Potter of It’s a Wonderful Life), has no knowledge of the plans for takeover of the enormous segment of government contracting, but he probably wouldn’t think much of them if he did.
These two men, Kirby and Vanderhof, represent opposite poles of the theme of this movie. That theme is a recurring one in Frank Capra’s films: “what is success?” Who is the successful man: A.P. Kirby or Martin Vanderhof? Like many of the characters in the story we must decide which pole will attract us.
After a brief introduction to Kirby and his business associates, the scene shifts to the office of one of his hirelings: the real estate agent charged with buying up all the property necessary to seal the huge monopoly deal. “Grandpa” Vanderhof has come to the office, presumably to discuss why he won’t be selling his house. However, in the front office area Grandpa meets Mr. Poppins (Donald Meek) and his adding machine. Grandpa can’t believe that Mr. Poppins enjoys feeding numbers to the machine and he asks him what he really enjoys. Poppins shows off a gadget he has built. Grandpa tells Poppins about his house and asks him to come on over and build gadgets. After a confrontation with the real estate agent Poppins leaves with Grandpa.
Upon arriving at the Vanderhof residence, Mr. Poppins is introduced to some of the other residents: Penny Sycamore (Spring Byington) Vanderhof’s daughter – writes novels; Paul, Penny’s husband – creates fireworks in the basement; Mr. DePinna, the former iceman, like Poppins was invited to come over and now makes fireworks and other things in the basement workshop; Essie, Paul and Penny’s daughter, is an aspiring dancer (an early part for actual dancer Ann Miller); Ed Carmichael (Dub Taylor), Essie’s husband, is a former football player who also came to visit, married Essie and now plays the xylophone, delivers candy and operates a print shop. Grandpa’s household has quite a collection of individuals all pursuing their own way to happiness, meshing in a community of peaceful cooperation. These are a few of the great characters and the actors who play them, which make up one of the best ensembles of fine casting that always comes with a Capra film.
We soon discover another connection between Grandpa’s family and Mr. Kirby: Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur: 'Babe' Bennett / Mary Dawson in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town), Essie’s sister, is Tony Kirby’s (Jimmy Stewart: George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life) secretary. Tony is quite taken with Alice and obliquely asks her to marry him. The unlikelihood of the conformist Kirbys and Grandpa’s group of individualists mixing well together is the main conflict that operates at the personal level in this movie.
You Can’t Take It With You is about “doing your own thing.” However, it is set and was made in a period long before the sixties. From Grandpa’s rejection of the income tax (a priceless scene in itself) to the frequent lighting of fireworks, this movie is permeated with an anti-establishment aura. All the characters are funny, vivacious and very much their own people. It is hard to imagine how these people would get along today in the world of Homeland Security and all its trimmings.