And we’re back with another Film Class Wednesday review. I believed, for quite a while, that I’d previously reviewed My Man Godfrey; I mean, it’s a beloved classic and I’ve watched it several times. Looks like I was wrong, and now I get to review it for you fine people! My Man Godfrey is screwball comedy at its finest (which I might have said in my review of It Happened One Night, but are used as examples of the genre) despite its inability to truly sell the horrors of the Depression to a mainstream audience.
Socialite Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) stumbles upon bum Godfrey (William Powell) in a trash heap during a scavenger hunt. Feeling sorry for him, Irene hires Godfrey as the Bullock family butler. Unfortunately, Godfrey steps into a world of intrigue and conflict, complicated by a secret he’s hiding from everyone.
I take umbrage with My Man Godfrey in one area, and I’ll get it out-of-the-way so I can discuss all the ways I enjoy this movie. Screwball comedies were meant to lighten the hearts of a downtrodden America by focusing on the lives of the daffy rich. It’s the prime reason screwballs died out so quickly because once we entered the war the diluted lives of the wealthy paled in comparison to what was really going on. The movie attempts to emphasize the severity of the Depression on people, and how the wealthy “just don’t get it.” Case in point, Irene and her sister, Cornelia (Gail Patrick) use Godfrey as the last puzzle piece of a charity scavenger hunt (and it’s safe to assume the charity money isn’t helping the poor men down at the trash heap). Godfrey’s presence as the urbane butler ends up reforming the Bullocks and pulling them out of their self-contained selfishness, but the secret about Godfrey’s past is a way of reasserting the status quo. It’s revealed that Godfrey is the prince of a wealthy family himself, whose broken free of the grind to live a life of freedom and poverty. It’s not okay to pair up Irene and Godfrey when he’s poor; it’s only once they’re “equals” in wealth that Godfrey is worthy of her. See, he was never truly poor! He was just faking it to prove a point. Something about that always left a sour taste in my mouth.
Okay, enough with the exploration of the lack of true social commentary in this movie. Oh, and I almost forgot the whole “turning the trash heap into a nightclub for wealthy people finale.” Really, Godfrey you think helping a few guys find jobs is going to really help the area. And take note the only homeless people we see are men! I’m really done. I complain about the societal influences of the movie, but the acting and script are pure screwball. The Bullocks are a group of angst-ridden nuts who constantly scheme and quibble in the most open manner; Mrs. Bullock (Alice Brady) lives in sin with her “protegé,” Carlo (Mischa Auer), and Cornelia is content to commit crimes like vandalism and framing Godfrey in order to remove him from the house. The characters are all insane enough to come off as rascally in a way so you appreciate them and truly feel they’ve changed by story’s end. Gail Patrick always played the cold bitch (for lack of a better term) in films like My Favorite Wife or Stage Door. As Cornelia, Patrick is the perfect ice queen but projects real remorse by the end.
The side characters are unimportant because this is Lombard and Powell’s vehicle, produced three years after their divorce. It’s easy to understand why they married (and possibly why the marriage failed) as these two anticipate each other’s moves. Powell perfects the urbane butler who understands the necessity of keeping his nose clean. He avoids trouble as much as possible and happens to work for a house where trouble is the word of the day! It’s also easy to figure out why everyone comes to love Godfrey. Powell plays the role so alluringly; he’s able to draw the best out of all he encounters. Carole Lombard works better, to my view, when her humor is subtle and tied into reality (ie her role in To Be Or Not To Be) but she is wonderful as the zany socialite of Godfrey’s dreams. She’s in the vein of Ginger Rogers where her flightiness and immaturity is fun without being infantile. Irene may be immature, but she’s self-aware. Her desire to overdramatize everything mines the script for the best one-liners, ones you’d never expect to sell.
My Man Godfrey is a jaunty romp between the have’s and the secretly have-more’s. It’s screwball 101, so if you haven’t taken it in already now is the time to do so.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.