The Vanderhof family at the center of You Can’t Take It with You is a collection of cheerful and erratic (yet lovable) incompetents. First, there’s Grandpa Martin Vanderhof, the salty and philosophical patriarch of this wacky family and a man who made his peace with the world, if not the Internal Revenue Service, long ago. Then there is his daughter, Penelope Sycamore (a cheerful and unpublished playwright, at least at the moment) and her husband, Paul (who happily manufactures fireworks in the cellar). The third generation consists of Penelope and Paul’s daughters and son-in-law: Essie Carmichael (the eternally optimistic, and inept, ballerina), her husband Ed (who has a passion for printing presses and xylophones), and Alice. Seemingly the only normal character in the household is Alice, a Wall Street secretary.
Into this whirlwind of activity comes Tony Kirby, Alice’s boyfriend, the son of her boss, and the epitome of normality and success in the business world. Tony is amused by Alice’s family and loves Alice in spite of the craziness in the family home. Alice, on the other hand, is sometimes merely chagrined, sometimes mortified by what happens when she brings Tony to the house. Despite the differences between the two families, Alice and Tony are soon engaged, and (over Alice’s protests) a dinner party is planned for Tony’s parents—at the Vanderhof home. Alice, of course, has misgivings about bringing Tony’s strait-laced parents into this maelstrom of activity: as she explained when she introduced Tony to her family: “I want him to take you in easy doses. I’ve tried to prepare him a little, but don’t make it any worse than you can help.” The family assures Alice that they will be on their best behavior, and the night is set.
However, as with most things in the Vanderhof family, things don’t go exactly as planned. Tony arrives with his parents in tow—but mistakenly arrives the night before the planned dinner party. And the Vanderhof tribe, rather than being on their best behavior are at their unplanned and hilarious worst. The Kirbys, predictably, are appalled at the wild unorthodoxy of the Vanderhofs, which presently results in the arrest of the family—and of the Kirbys themselves. Alice, convinced that the two families will never get along, determines to leave hers; but Tony, seeing something deeper in the family that his parents or perhaps even Alice don’t see, tries in vain to dissuade her and explains that he brought his parents to the party a night early on purpose: “I wanted [my parents] to see a real family—as they really were. A family that loved and understood each other.”
The Kirbys are angry at their son and disturbed that he could love such a family, but he insists that he still wants to marry Alice. Everything, eventually, is brought back to the important center by Grandpa, as he talks to Mr. Kirby and to Tony about what is really important and teaches everyone some vital lessons about life: “You’ve got all the money you need. You can’t take it with you. . . . And what’s it got you? Same kind of mail every morning, same kind of deals, same kind of meetings, same dinners at night, same indigestion. Where does the fun come in? Don’t you think there ought to be something more. . . . We haven’t got too much time, you know–any of us.”