My Man Godfrey (1935)
My Man Godrey – The Criterion Collection
Genre: Screwball Comedy
When I see a film described as a screwball comedy, it’s usually my cue to run away, far, far away. So many try to achieve screwball status and so few succeed. I think maybe because they try too hard. Here director Gregory La Cava makes it look effortless.
It’s the height of the Great Depression and we get to see both sides of the coin. The film opens with a scavenger hunt which Irene Bullock (leading lady Carole Lombard) tells Godfrey Smith/Parke (leading man William Powell) is about people looking for things which aren’t wanted. In this case, it’s the men living in the City Dump. Cornelia Bullock (Gail Patrick) and her useless swain arrive there looking for a “forgotten man.” Cornelia spies Godfrey and insultingly asks him if he wants to earn $5.00. Godfrey not only turns her down, he backs her into an ash heap. Thus beginning their film long clashes.
Irene watches this then gleefully tells Godfrey she’s always wanted to do that. After speaking with him and learning about the desperate men trying to stay alive here, she offers sympathy. Learning that she’s got a chance to beat Cornelia in the game, Godfrey tells her he’ll go with her in order for her to win. Once there, he’s subjected to some demeaning questions as the idle rich engaged in the hunt swirl around him. Irene feels responsible and impulsively offers him a job as the family butler.
The next day, Godfrey arrives at the Bullock mansion and discovers what a madhouse it is. Mrs. Bullock (Alice Brady) keeps a protégé with her, Carlo (Mischa Auer), whose main talent is eating and imitating a gorilla. Cornelia hasn’t forgotten her humiliation at Godfrey’s hands and seems determined to exact her pound of flesh. Mr. Bullock (Eugene Pallette) appears sane but totally overwhelmed by his out of control family. Irene decides to take Godfrey on as her own protégé in the face of family disapproval. While the maid, Molly (Jean Dixon), offers a running commentary on the entire clan.
During a society tea party, we learn a bit more about Godfrey’s mysterious background when guest Tommy Gray (Alan Mowbray) recognizes him. A later encounter between the two fills in the information that Godfrey is actually a member of the Boston blue blood Parke family. After a romance goes bad, he indulges his self pity and disappears, ending up in the NYC dump. It’s here that he discovers the real down and out people of the world who can’t whinge about fate as they’re too busy trying to stay one step ahead of total destitution. It’s their positive attitude and determination to survive that bring Godfrey around to the point where Irene finds him.
It’s pretty obvious early on that Irene feels she’s in love with Godfrey, much to his dismay. But it takes a while for him to acknowledge his feelings have changed towards her. It isn’t until he puts her in the shower (you just have to see it) that he unwittingly reveals that she’s finally gotten to him. From there on, it’s a fairly quick capitulation for him.
Godfrey: Why can’t you let me alone?
Irene: Because you’re my responsibility and someone has to take care of you.
Godfrey: I can take care of myself.
Irene: You can’t look me in the eye and say that. You love me and you know it. You know, there’s no sense in struggling against a thing when it’s got you. It’s got you and that’s all there is to it – it’s got you!
While “My Man Godfrey” is one of the definitive screwball comedies, it’s also a commentary on the Great Depression of the 1930s. And it’s this grounding of the film that makes it special. It’s not just rich people acting like fools and being lampooned for it but also a glimpse of how many people in the country were actually living or at risk of living if they were unfortunately enough to lose their jobs.
This is one of Carole Lombard’s best films and the camera loves her. She literally appears to shine while onscreen. We can laugh at her over dramatic antics as she attempts to catch Godfrey’s eye because she’s so transparent, yet so earnest, in her attentions. Hollywood truly lost a great actress when she died so young.
William Powell is perfect for Godfrey. He plays the straight man to Lombard’s ditzy Irene and we can follow his changes in attitude and feelings towards her until he’s truly gotten. He’s the one in almost total control of everyone throughout the story except for Irene. With her, he’s almost always either befuddled or bedazzled but in any case, he’s always the gentleman.
The sets and costumes are fabulous, displaying the glamour of bias cut satin gowns and modernity of the Art Deco style. The script is funny and relies on character development rather than pratfall after pratfall. It has the classic elements of the genre – misunderstandings, mistaken identities, witty dialogue, a mismatched couple, the rich seen as idle and the female of the pair controlling the final marriage.
When looking for a screwball comedy to enjoy, there are many from which to choose from the “golden age” of the genre. But “My Man Godfrey” has to rank among the best and is well worth seeking out, even (almost) 75 years after its release. Though it didn’t win any of the six Oscars for which it was nominated, its place on the National Film Registry is well deserved and it’s one of my favorites.