Plot: The Sycamore family, a group of loving and lovable eccentrics presided over by Grandpa (Lionel Barrymore), includes daughter Penny (Spring Byington), who writes lurid plays, her husband Paul (Samuel S. Hinds) who makes fireworks in the basement with Mr. DePinna (Halliwell Hobbes), the iceman who came by to deliver ice nine years before and just stayed. Mr. Poppin (Donald Meek), who loves to make mechanical toys, has just joined them. The Sycamores have two daughters. Essie (Ann Miller) loves to dance, and her husband Ed (Dub Taylor) plays the xylophone. They sell candy to make a little money. The other daughter, Alice (Jean Arthur), is the only one in the family with a job. She works for a banking firm, and has fallen in love with the boss’ son, Tony Kirby (Jimmy Stewart).
A man from the IRS visits, to find out why Grandpa has never paid any taxes. The neighbors are all being evicted because the land is being sold to developers who intend to build a factory. And Tony’s very elegant and snobbish parents arrive for dinner on the wrong night, descending upon the Sycamore family just as Ed is arrested for enclosing seditious statements in the candy boxes and all the fireworks blow up. Various crises of finance and embarrassment and misunderstanding ensue, but all are straightened out, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Discussion: The well-loved play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart is given the Frank Capra treatment, sometimes called “capra-corn.” The entire populist sub-plot about the land being sold and the appearance of most of the characters in court are the additions of Capra and his screenwriter, Robert Riskin, and they make the film seem a bit dated. But children will enjoy the way that everyone in the family joyfully pursues his or her own dreams, and the way they all respect and support each other.
Discuss with children the way that some characters in the movie do not even seem to notice how eccentric they appear to others, while others notice and enjoy being different, and still others try desperately to appear “normal.” Children may have their own ideas about what “normal” means and whether it makes them feel entertained or uncomfortable to be around people who have a different idea of normality. All children feel embarrassed by their families at times, and it is worth paying attention to the way that Alice learns, with Tony’s help, that her family is not as unacceptable to the “normal” world as she feared.
Questions for Kids:
· Would you like to live in a family like this one?
· Which family member is most like you?
· Why did Tony tell his parents the wrong night for dinner at the Sycamore’s?
· Notice the difference between the way that the Sycamores and the Kirbys react when they get arrested. Why?
· What does the title mean?
Connections: This movie won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director. Kaufman and Hart were the most successful playwrights of their day, and some of their other plays have been made into movies, too. “George Washington Slept Here,” with Jack Benny and Ann Sheridan, is a very funny story about a family that moves into a ramshackle house. “The Man Who Came to Dinner” is about a nightmare dinner guest who falls and breaks his hip and is stuck in the house long enough to cause complete disruption for everyone. Kaufman was co-author, with Edna Ferber, of “Stage Door,” about a group of young would-be actresses. It was made into a movie starring Katherine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers, and featuring Ann Miller, Lucille Ball, and Eve Arden. He was also the author of some of the Marx Brothers’ most popular movies.
Activities: Younger kids will enjoy Weird Parents by Audrey Wood, about a boy whose parents are even more outlandish than the Sycamores. Older kids can have fun getting a copy of the play and acting out some of their favorite scenes.