Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

Friday Film Review: My Man Godfrey

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.

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

30 Comments

  1. Danielle
    Jul 10, 2009 @ 04:20:03

    I love this movie — and I look forward to watching it whenever it’s on TV.

    I hate to say this but they just don’t make movies like this anymore.

  2. Edie
    Jul 10, 2009 @ 04:40:50

    I lurrrrrrve this movie, but haven’t seen it in ages, thanks for the reminder to chase it up!

  3. joanne
    Jul 10, 2009 @ 06:07:27

    The slideshow is bookcovers.

    For no amount of money could I have named the actor who played Lombards’ father but Eugene Pallette was a journeyman actor whose face is seen in dozens of movies from that era and he always makes me smile. Lombard and Powell were married, weren’t they? Or maybe not, I’m too lazy to look it up. He will always remain The Thin Man to me and she will always be Clark Gables lost love.

    I liked the look the movie gave us into what the results of yet another stock market fiasco did to ordinary and not so ordinary working men & women. Thanks for a the reminder of another one of my favorite black and white movies!

  4. Jayne
    Jul 10, 2009 @ 06:18:56

    Yeah, we’re working on the slideshow. ;)

    For me, Eugene Pallette’s best remembered role is as Friar Tuck in the Errol Flynn version of “Robin Hood.”

    And yes, you’re right. Powell and Lombard had been married though they were divorced by this time. From what I read, Powell held out for her to be cast in the roll.

  5. Jayne
    Jul 10, 2009 @ 06:45:10

    I hate to say this but they just don't make movies like this anymore.

    Totally agree. It’s the recent movies that are described as “screwball” that generally make me twitch. And then reach for this or “Bringing Up Baby,” or “Bachelor Mother” or “It Happened One Night,” or, well just about any of the 30s/40s films.

  6. Megan
    Jul 10, 2009 @ 07:02:24

    Oh, this is one of my favorites! The acting is awesome–I love the mother in this, too. Thanks for reminding me just what makes it so great.

  7. Jayne
    Jul 10, 2009 @ 07:22:54

    Mrs. Bullock is great! I think it takes a lot of talent to act that ditzy and she sure was ditzy. Gail Patrick as Cornelia is outstanding as well. As the “Park Avenue Brat,” she can make you hate her as she schemes to get back at Godfrey yet when she’s been redeemed, you can forgive her. Mostly.

  8. Kalen Hughes
    Jul 10, 2009 @ 08:16:10

    Add me to the list of those who love this film (The Thin Man made me a Powell fan for life!).

  9. Moth
    Jul 10, 2009 @ 08:35:18

    It's the recent movies that are described as “screwball” that generally make me twitch.

    It’s not very recent, but for me Noises Off would probably qualify as a modern, excellent screwball comedy:

    “Bag! Bag! Bag!”
    “Sardines! Sardines! Sardines!”

    Ah. So good.

    OOH! And Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day. That one’s funny and very romantic. And Lee Pace is yummy.

  10. Jayne
    Jul 10, 2009 @ 08:58:09

    OOH! And Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day. That one's funny and very romantic. And Lee Pace is yummy.

    This is one I’m still not too sure of in my mind. I had read the book a few years ago and so had that in my head when I saw the movie a few months ago. At first I didn’t care for the movie but it kind of grew on me a little by the end.

  11. Edie
    Jul 10, 2009 @ 09:18:50

    ooo.. Bringing Up Baby – the first time I saw that I fell into a lifelong love for Katharine Hepburn.. love that woman!

  12. Kalen Hughes
    Jul 10, 2009 @ 10:25:19

    OOH! And Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day. That one's funny and very romantic. And Lee Pace is yummy.

    It totally worked for me, and it’s just so darn sweet. But then I can watch Penelope over and over too (movie is seriously underrated IMO).

  13. Moth
    Jul 10, 2009 @ 10:41:48

    @Kalen Hughes

    I can watch Penelope over and over too (movie is seriously underrated IMO).

    I LOVE that movie. James McAvoy is also yummy. :)

  14. Susan/DC
    Jul 10, 2009 @ 11:45:55

    @Moth:

    OOH! And Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day. That one's funny and very romantic. And Lee Pace is yummy.

    Yes! I cried (figuratively, at least) the when I found out “Pushing Daisies” was cancelled. Loved him, loved Kristin Chenowith, loved the costumes and set design. But I didn’t really appreciate how downright sexy Lee Pace was until I saw him in “Miss Pettigrew”.

    @Edie:

    ooo.. Bringing Up Baby – the first time I saw that I fell into a lifelong love for Katharine Hepburn.. love that woman!

    I felt that way after seeing her in “The Philadelphia Story”. Her over-the-top society miss when she’s stringing along Jimmy Stewart’s reporter at the beginning still makes me laugh even after umpteen viewings.

    @Jayne:

    And yes, you're right. Powell and Lombard had been married though they were divorced by this time. From what I read, Powell held out for her to be cast in the roll.

    I didn’t know this. If true, it means he not only played a gentleman in the movie, he was one in Real Life.

  15. Evangeline
    Jul 10, 2009 @ 14:11:12

    I’m a screwball comedy STAN, and while I adore Bill Powell and Carole Lombard (and the secondary actors too), My Man Godfrey has never really impressed me. It has all the elements of a screwball comedy, but it misses a few key ingredients: mainly, the screwball heroine is usually pretty intelligent and this was one pre-WWII genre where the heroine topped the hero. Irene was dim-witted and shrieking for the sake of it; there were no mellow moments with her (compare Irene to Susan Vance in Bringing Up Baby), and Carole’s performance was too over-the-top for me (that sort of thing fit in Twentieth Century, but here it was grating). But it IS extremely hilarious. I just don’t like Irene or feel the romance at the end was very deserved (I cringe at the thought of Godfrey and Irene’s married life). Carole is at her best in screwball in Nothing Sacred, True Confessions, Twentieth Century, and Mr & Mrs Smith.

  16. Jayne
    Jul 10, 2009 @ 17:32:13

    I can watch Penelope over and over too (movie is seriously underrated IMO).

    I have this in my Netflix queue as well.

    I LOVE that movie. James McAvoy is also yummy. :)

    I adored him in the first season of “Shameless” which, by the way, I wish would be available in the US. Only season one is currently out from Netflix.

  17. Jayne
    Jul 10, 2009 @ 17:43:00

    Irene was dim-witted and shrieking for the sake of it; there were no mellow moments with her (compare Irene to Susan Vance in Bringing Up Baby), and Carole's performance was too over-the-top for me

    Ah, here is where our opinions differ. I felt she did have some mellow times, especially when she and Godfrey first met at the city dump before heading out to win the scavenger hunt. Then later when Godfrey was washing dishes for the sick Molly and Irene joined him – drying dishes as they talked. I feel that Irene knows exactly what she’s doing throughout the film, it just takes Godfrey awhile to fall under her spell.

  18. Likari (LindaR)
    Jul 10, 2009 @ 18:10:34

    Jayne, try this link for Shameless:

    linky

    edit: oh fooey! foiled by the dreaded regional limits scenario!!

  19. Kelly B.
    Jul 10, 2009 @ 18:59:16

    I enjoyed My Man Godfrey but my favorite screwball comedies are:

    The Lady Eve (Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda)

    Ball of Fire (Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper) and

    Libeled Lady (Myrna Loy, William Powell, Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow).

    If you love screwball comedies, I can’t recommend them highly enough!!!

  20. Moth
    Jul 10, 2009 @ 20:23:02

    Totally unrelated, but nontheless awesome…

    Are there any Howard Keel fans in the house, because my sister just discovered this wonderful/horrifying video of him in a tiny tiny skirt on you tube and I just… had to share. Hair-pulling, animals freaking out, men with trust issues, phallic symbols like whoa- It’s practically a romance novel cover in action!

  21. The Profane Angel
    Jul 11, 2009 @ 00:07:47

    Ah, Carole Lombard…I wrote a well reviewed novel about her, that’s how much I loved her. My Man Godfrey is a vicious attack on the rich, no doubt, but it’s truly funny. Part of the appeal (for film historians anyway) is that Lombard was extremely bright, yet she played this ditz to perfection. Some minor trivia – yes, Lombard was married to Powell, and yes, he refused to do the film unless she was cast, though they were divorced; Alice Brady (Mrs. Bullock) once had an affair with Gable; Gail Patrick was once married to the owner of The Brown Derby, Lombard’s favorite place.

    While I find “My Man Godfrey” to be perhaps the funniest screwball film, it’s rivaled by “Nothing Sacred.” Those two films were perhaps the pinnacle of her career, her short life. For a look at her dramatic abilities, I recommend “They Knew What They Wanted” co-starring Charles Laughton, and as a trivia note, was Karl Malden’s first film appearance.

    Lombard was truly beloved by Hollywood, there wasn’t a pretentious bone in her body. Her romance with Gable achieved legendary status, perhaps because of that scene that was summarized as “hell on a mountain” – January 16, 1942. With her death, the legend was secure. She left behind a wonderful body of work, as well as a legacy of behind the scenes humanitarian work. “My Man Godfrey” is a fitting tribute to this wonderful woman.

  22. Evangeline
    Jul 11, 2009 @ 01:03:19

    @Jayne: I feel that’s the reason why My Man Godfrey fails: the beginning of the movie shows a dizzy young woman–the standard screwball heroine–but as she throws herself into pursuit of Godfrey, she looked dimwitted to me–especially when she throws that abrupt tantrum when Godfrey tries to leave. The ending seems less to me like Godfrey falling under her spell, and more like an exasperated man who gives in to end Irene’s loony behavior.

    Ultimately, I didn’t feel any pathos from this movie. A screwball staple is the clash between classes (It Happened One Night, Libeled Lady, Bringing Up Baby, Fifth Avenue Girl), and a) Godfrey’s reasons for becoming a forgotten man weren’t written very well & b) the high society life was distasteful to him, yet Irene was and represented the worst excesses and indulgences of that class–where and when did he fall in love with her? 90% of their conversation was her coming on to him and he trying to defend himself, even that during the dish-washing scene. My Man Godfrey is funny and had most of the tropes inherent to the screwball comedy oeuvre, but even though I’ve watched it multiple times, I never feel any emotion driving the plot. It’s all a bunch of situations strung together with a few moments of scene-and-sequel (mostly those with William Powell).

    But que sera sera, it’s just my opinion on a film, on actors, and on a movie genre I dearly love. Not trying to force it down anyone’s throat.

  23. Jayne
    Jul 11, 2009 @ 05:41:03

    But que sera sera, it's just my opinion on a film, on actors, and on a movie genre I dearly love. Not trying to force it down anyone's throat.

    I’d be willing to bet that fans of the genre couldn’t agree on every screwball film out there. For instance, I recently managed to make it through “Double Wedding” but wasn’t as thrilled with it as I thought I’d be. Myrna Loy and William Powell, how could it miss? But it did. And I couldn’t even finish “Libeled Lady.” Hated Spencer Tracy, hated Loy, hated Jean Harlow. Powell was the only one who kept me watching as long as I did and even he seemed like he wanted to be anywhere but on that set.

    We do agree on “Nothing Sacred” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” I’ve got a few of Lombard’s other movies on my rental list but am about to give up on Loy and Powell outside of the “Thin Man” movies and even those don’t do much for me either.

  24. Jayne
    Jul 11, 2009 @ 05:46:46

    Moth, that is one weird movie scene – a total asshole alpha guy. I can only hope she brings him low before the end!

  25. Kris Eton
    Jul 11, 2009 @ 06:26:43

    OMG, “It Happened One Night” is one of my favorite movies of all time. That is my number one screwball comedy. Another that has gone unmentioned is “His Girl Friday” with a deliciously yummy Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. I like that one because it has humor, but also tackles a very serious storyline about a man from death row.

  26. Evangeline
    Jul 12, 2009 @ 15:47:50

    @Jayne: Aw, too bad. I love Double Wedding and Libeled Lady. Have you tried Love Crazy or I Love You Again?

    As for old movie clips, I love this one:
    If Men Played Cards as Women Do, with Fred MacMurray, Franchot Tone, Ray Milland and Lynn Overman.

  27. Jayne
    Jul 12, 2009 @ 17:27:20

    Another that has gone unmentioned is “His Girl Friday” with a deliciously yummy Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. I like that one because it has humor, but also tackles a very serious storyline about a man from death row.

    I’ve only seen this one once and that was years ago. I’ll have to try it again as I love Grant.

  28. Jayne
    Jul 12, 2009 @ 17:41:51

    Have you tried Love Crazy or I Love You Again?

    No, but I’m going to give them a go too.

    As for old movie clips, I love this one:
    If Men Played Cards as Women Do, with Fred MacMurray, Franchot Tone, Ray Milland and Lynn Overman.

    OMG. Too funny. Especially the conference when Tone went to get the glass of water. I love him in “Five Graves to Cairo” and wish that were out as a DVD.

  29. merepersiflage
    Jul 12, 2009 @ 18:16:00

    I can’t recommend Love Crazy enough. It’s one of those things that found me at just the right moment. I still find it cathartic. Myrna Loy’s nose is a true marvel of nature and how can you resist Powell in drag?

    It also features Gail Patrick who made her living playing that type of character. Have you seen her in My Favorite Wife?

    After a vacation from hell, finding Love Crazy on cable at one AM in a random hotel in North Carolina may have saved me from deliberately driving off the interstate in order to end my MIL-in-the-backseat induced torment.

    A few I didn’t see mentioned here are Holiday, Sylvia Scarlet, and Four’s a Crowd.

  30. Jayne
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 05:32:43

    It also features Gail Patrick who made her living playing that type of character. Have you seen her in My Favorite Wife?

    I’ve seen the movie but it’s been awhile and I didn’t remember Patrick as being in it. I’ll have to rewatch it and look for her.

    After a vacation from hell, finding Love Crazy on cable at one AM in a random hotel in North Carolina may have saved me from deliberately driving off the interstate in order to end my MIL-in-the-backseat induced torment.

    LOL. Glad to see you survived the experience.

    A few I didn't see mentioned here are Holiday, Sylvia Scarlet, and Four's a Crowd.

    Now Sylvia Scarlet is a movie I’ve always been half afraid to try. The reviews and opinions on it range so widely and it seems that it works for a smaller minority of viewers. Holiday is one I’ve never seen either but I gotta agree with you on Four’s a Crowd. That’s one I’d love to see on DVD.

%d bloggers like this: