William Powell wouldn’t make screwball comedy My Man Godfrey without Carole Lombard as his co-star. It’s not every actor who insists on getting the ex-wife in to play love scenes (they’d divorced three years earlier) but watching the results you can see why he insisted.
It’s an exquisite film, superbly directed and brilliantly written but it’s the acting that is the best thing about it. David Niven and June Allyson would star in a remake in 1957, but good though they are, they stand no chance against Powell and Lombard in full spate in 1936, not to mention the whole rest of the cast. There isn’t a role in this film that isn’t filled by an actor of real talent.
The fact that the film also functions as a broadsides against the complacency of the ruling classes in the midst of the Depression only adds to its lustre. And that, unusually for a screwball comedy of the era, is where the action starts, at the sharp end of the Depression, a dump where homeless men are scavenging in the trash.
Enter a party of silly rich entitled somebodies on a scavenger hunt. If one of them can bring back a “forgotten man” from the dump, they’ll score big and almost certainly win the competition. The astringent Cornelia (Gail Patrick) tries first, insensitively accosting an unshaven, shabbily dressed man called Godfrey (William Powell). She pushes hard, he pushes back and she ends up in a mound of ashes. End of round one.
Her sister, Irene (Carole Lombard) has a go, and is successful in winning Godfrey over, having used more carrot and less stick. She seems nice. So does he – and he’s remarkably well spoken for a vagrant.
In two shakes, Godfrey has become the family’s butler – “Do you butle?” Irene asks him. “We’re fresh out of butlers.”
Into the Bullock family home Godfrey goes, where screenwriters Morrie Ryskind and Eric Hatch have the most fun. What a family – the awful Cornelia, the dizzy Irene, their babbling endlessly superficial mother (Alice Brady, the best thing in it, though only by a nose), their bulldog father (Eugene Pallette) who looks like he’s got his head screwed on until it turns out he hasn’t. And their pet artist, Cornelia’s “protégé”, a freeloader called Carlo (Mischa Auer) who does little except stroke his own ego and eat the Bullock’s food.
Godfrey, it turns out, isn’t quite what he seems, but the family are entirely what they seem – entitled, dislocated from wider society, silly, self-deceiving and thoughtless, possibly even heartless. In the kitchen of the family home slaves Molly (Jean Dixon, more soaraway talent), two feet on the ground even though she loses her head to Godfrey, as does Irene.
Molly stands no chance, but she’s dealt with delicately. The will they/won’t they here is entirely between Irene, who makes no attempt to hide the fact that she’s fallen in love with the butler, and Godfrey who, insisting on the “proprieties” and stays on a relentlessly professional footing with the woman who got him the gig. Cornelia, meanwhile, relentlessly mocks her sister for having fallen for someone of low social status.
The Admirable Crichton, the JM Barrie play (and several film adaptations) about the competent butler marooned on a desert island with his incompetetent employers uses a broadly similar situation as the “sit” part of its “sitcom” setup. The “com” comes from Ryskind and Hatch spinning and respinning the basic set-up, while this phalanx of comedy talent chirupping away like crickets (apart from Pallette, who’s more the wounded bull elephant).
The only other thing you really need to know about My Man Godfrey is that the production design and lighting are in Astaire and Rogers territory – not art deco but bright lights, lots of white walls and furniture. It shimmers. And thanks to director Gregory La Cava’s direction, it also glides.
This post’s main picture is from the scene near the end of the film when Godfrey and Irene wash and dry together – “I’ll wipe,” she says, loading “wipe” with so much emotion that the reason why Powell wanted Lombard becomes clear, if it hadn’t already. Lombard eventually grew to resent the fact that the public only wanted to see her in comedies. This film is Exhibit A in any attempt to demonstrate why they did.
Do yourself a favour if you’re going to watch it and get a decent version. The Criterion restoration is to 4K and as well as totally transforming its looks, the upgrade has done wonders with the sound. Dialogue like this needs to be heard. And avoid the colourised version – black and white both mean something in this film. Watch it as Gregory La Cava intended it to be watched.
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