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My Man Godfrey (1936)

My Man Godfrey is a screwball comedy starring Carole Lombard as a wealthy heiress who hires William Powell, supposedly a down-and-out, to be her new butler. Complications - and romance - inevitably ensue.

William Powell and Carole Lombard
Godfrey (William Powell) and Irene (Carole Lombard)

Powell plays Godfrey, one of the "forgotten men" of the Great Depression. He is living with other dispossessed men in a temporary encampment in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge in New York. One night a group of wealthy, fun-loving flappers in smart evening dress pull up in their cars and rush down to meet Godfrey. Cornelia (Gail Patrick) tells him that they are taking part in a scavenger hunt and one of the "items" they have to bring back is a "forgotten man". She offers him $5 if he will come back with her and help her to claim the prize. 

Godfrey is obviously a dignified, self-respecting type and is unimpressed. He tells Cornelia what he thinks of her and her offer and pushes her onto an ash heap, at which point she beats a hasty retreat. But he is more susceptible to the charms of her younger sister Irene (Carole Lombard). When she tells him how much she would like to beat Cornelia for once, he agrees to go along with her. Not for the money, but to help her out. And out of his own curiosity about the scavenger hunt and the kind of people taking part in it. 

So the two return to the gathering at a fancy hotel, where well-heeled types are quaffing champagne and totting up their points from the competition. Once Irene has Godfrey added to her tally, he tells the assembled revellers what he thinks of them before making off. 

But Irene now feels responsible for Godfrey. Can she do anything to help him? Well, he says, he could do with a job. Well, that's a piece of luck, because their family butler has just left - and Godfrey can be his replacement.

William Powell as a hobo in My Man Godfrey
Godfrey in the "Hooverville" encampment

My Man Godfrey was based on Eric Hatch's 1935 novel and scripted by Hatch and Morrie Ryskind, with uncredited contributions from Robert Presnell and Zoë Akins. The film was directed by Gregory La Cava and remains one of his best known films. La Cava was a former cartoonist who directed animated shorts, making more than 100, before he turned to live action film making. He became especially associated with comedies and the screwball variety in particular in the 1930s, enjoying his first big hits at RKO with The Half-Naked Truth (1932) and Gabriel Over the White House (1933). La Cava would enjoy another big hit after this with the comedy Stage Door in 1937, but his work became patchy after that, his career declining sharply in the 1940s.

My Man Godfrey is usually described as a screwball comedy, but it's also partly a comedy of manners. It does, however, have some familiar screwball elements - the crazy antics of crazy rich people, rich people pretending to be poor, comic misunderstandings and mistaken identity.

The film is generally droll and more restrained than many a contemporary screwball comedy. Appropriately enough, since he plays the title role, William Powell's performance as Godfrey is what makes the film. 

Godfrey is intelligent, solicitous, concerned, dignified and capable. But he finds himself working in the Bullock family's dysfunctional household, consisting not only of Irene, but her scheming sister Cornelia, her highly strung mother (Alice Brady), their bullish father (Eugene Pallette) and her mother's unlikely "protégé", Carlo (Mischa Auer). Carlo is supposedly a musical prodigy, but he mostly just eats their food and lounges around, occasionally playing the piano or doing his gorilla impression. 

William Powell manages to invest his character Godfrey with a wry sense of humour and a distinctly knowing sensibility. His subtle playing contrasts well with the other more flamboyant performances of most of those around him. 

William Powell, Eugene Pallette and Jean Dixon
Godfrey, with Mr Bullock (Eugene Pallette) and Molly (Jean Dixon)

Godfrey is also aware of Irene's interest in him early on, but isn't sure exactly what to make of it. After bringing Irene breakfast in bed, he leaves her room, only for her to call out after him:  

"I just thought of something else ... do you know what you are?"

"I'm not quite sure..." he replies.

"You're my responsibility."

"That's very nice."

Powell manages to invest just the right amount of meaning into lines like Godfrey's worldly, wary response, "I'm not quite sure", in this scene.

Carole Lombard makes her character appealing and sympathetic enough, but she has to do a lot of simpering and mooning over Godfrey. His dignity and strength of character are quite unlike her own family and are presumably what she finds so attractive about him. Her dual romantic and professional interest in him are implied by the film's ambiguous title.

While Irene makes efforts to manipulate her family, she's not very skilled at it in the way that Cornelia is. This makes her seem more childlike and naïve than Machiavellian, and therefore a more sympathetic character, despite her attempted schemings. 

As well as being more dignified than his wealthy employers, Godfrey is portrayed as both morally and intellectually superior. He not only proves himself to be a dab hand at butlering and at dealing with the various members of the household, but he is also more knowledgeable than they are. Irene even has to ask him to explain what the word "proprieties" means, when he uses it in conversation, and her mother is moved to declare that "he seems to know everything".

William Powell and Alice Brady
Godfrey with Mrs Bullock (Alice Brady)

Although he possesses a dry sense of humour, Godfrey is less frivolous and more moral than his supposed betters. He only reluctantly takes part in the scavenger hunt to help Irene and out of his own curiosity, and refuses the inducement of money offered by Cornelia. 

Ryskind and Hatch's script has plenty of amusing lines and wry wit, enough of it puncturing snobbery and class pretensions to undermine the film's wealthy characters. As when Mrs Bullock explains to Godfrey that she should know the words to The Star Spangled Banner. "After all, my ancestors came over on a boat. Oh, not the Mayflower, but the boat after that."

Although there's an irony here in Mrs Bullock emphasising how long her family have been in America, but then asking Godfrey about his own ancestors: "They weren't Indians, I hope." Obviously it's important to be an early American, but not too early. Godfrey's reply, "One can never be sure of one's ancestors", would seem to undermine the notion of aristocracy or "good breeding".

It's difficult to discuss My Man Godfrey in any detail without getting into spoiler territory. Because the film does have a major revelation before the half way mark. This comes when Godfrey unexpectedly runs into Tommy Gray (Alan Mowbray), a reliable English chap who recognises him from ... Harvard. 

Because Godfrey is, in fact, not a poor down-and-out at all. He, like Irene, is a creature of privilege, the scion of a wealthy family in Boston. After an ill-fated romance, he had gone down to the river with dark thoughts, but had changed his mind when he saw the men living in the encampment by the bridge. Although they had nothing, they still hadn't given up on life. The "forgotten men" were superior to the more fragile and easily beaten wealthy - including Godfrey himself. 

Carole Lombard and William Powell doing the dishes
Irene helping Godfrey with the dishes

The rich people in the film have only their money to sustain them and, it seems, little in the way of knowledge or intellect and even less in terms of character or grit. They are only interested in using the poor as props in their games or in having them perform for them for money, as with Godfrey and the scavenger hunt or even with Carlo and his requirement to act like a monkey for the family's amusement. Godfrey is even compared to a pet dog when Irene's mother talks of her daughter's concern for him: "He's the first thing she's shown any affection for since her Pomeranian died last summer".

The film implies that it was Godfrey's humbling experience living in the encampment that made him a better man and superior to the Bullock family. But the revelation that Godfrey is also rich seems a bit of a cheat. It's actually not untypical of the make-believe Hollywood of the time - we're all rich really and we're just playing at being poor! But the film does tend to lose its impetus and interest a little afterwards, conspicuously backing out of its interesting premise, with a convenient plot twist and a make-believe happy ending.

Godfrey is now no longer quite the intriguing character that he was. And he and Irene are no longer mismatched, star-crossed lovers, they are social and financial equals. Godfrey's future is no longer in any doubt either, since he doesn't need the job or the money anyway. The story of the millionairess and the down-and-out, who's also secretly a millionaire, is a classic case of Hollywood having-your-cake-and-eating-it syndrome. 

The film concludes with an improbable, almost fairytale ending, with Godfrey opening up a nightclub by the bridge called "The Dump", employing all the forgotten men there and buying up accommodation for them to live in. This seems like an almost absurdly naïve fantasy and audiences of the time must have known it was a fantasy. But they must have found it appealing anyway, particularly with its implication that it's up to the wealthy and the "haves" to do something for the "have-nots". 

Godfrey's first act on returning to the camp is to make sure all the men get plenty of food, by having it brought in by trucks. Although they only seem to be receiving truckloads of tins of beans, meaning that it's somewhere you might want to keep away from for a while.

William Powell, Carole Lombard and Jean Dixon
Godfrey with his admirers, Irene and Molly

Godfrey even uses the pearls, hidden under his mattress by the duplicitous Cornelia to make it look as if he had stolen them, to invest in the stock market. When her family lose all of their money, he manages to make most of it back through his shrewd investing, short-selling the same shares. 

It seems remarkable that people still held on to the hope of making a killing on the stock market by betting on share movements and speculative investments only a few short years after the Wall Street Crash, but that's the solution to money troubles suggested by the script. Although, given the film's other apparent messages, you would think that Godfrey of all people would understand that having less money, and even having to work for a living, might actually do this family some good. 

In the film's final scenes, Irene follows Godfrey to the nightclub with the intention that they should get married there and then. Their marrying is ostensibly a traditional happy ending, although it has to be said that Godfrey looks very unenthusiastic about the idea. Indeed, he had already left her family's employment and told Irene that they would keep in touch and he would write to her - not exactly a heartfelt declaration of love. 

It's not clear if the film is suggesting that she knows better what's best for Godfrey than he does, or if it's implying that once a woman has made up her mind, a man just has to reluctantly accept his fate. No more bachelor larks and pretending to be a butler for you, Godfrey - you gotta settle down and get married! This ending alters the meaning of the film's title, from "my man" as in a butler, to "my man", a husband.

Poster for My Man Godfrey, featuring Gail Patrick, Alan Mowbray and William Powell
Poster for My Man Godfrey, featuring Gail Patrick, Alan Mowbray and William Powell

This happy ending is ironic, since Powell and Lombard had themselves already been married for two years before divorcing in 1933. Obviously reasonably amicably, since it was Powell who insisted on Lombard's casting in this film and their chemistry together is one of its pleasures. Universal was one of the smaller studios of the 1930s and had few major stars of its own, so they had to be borrowed, with Powell coming from the grander MGM and Lombard from Paramount. She brought with her her regular costume designer, Travis Banton, and cinematographer, Ted Tetzlaff. Her Best Actress nod for this film was her only Oscar nomination. 

The film has some nice design elements, particularly the snazzy opening titles, which are designed with the cast and crew names appearing as if in neon lights on buildings, as the camera pans across a night time cityscape. The film then transitions from glitzy skyscrapers to the shanty town of the film's opening scenes, in an illustration of its contrasting of these two worlds. Less satisfactory are some of the exterior backgrounds in the film - especially a background of skyscrapers, which is very obviously a painted backdrop.

The film was a substantial hit for Universal at what was a difficult time for the studio. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, including best screenplay and direction, but not best picture - although it ultimately won none. It was actually another William Powell film, The Great Ziegfeld, that won Best Picture that year. This was also the first year that the Oscars had included all four acting categories and My Man Godfrey became the first film to be nominated in every one; William Powell as Best Actor, Carole Lombard as Best Actress, Mischa Auer as Best Supporting Actor and Alice Brady as Best Supporting Actress. 

My Man Godfrey was inducted into the U.S. National Film Registry in 1999. The story was given another airing in a forgettable remake in 1957 directed by Henry Koster, with June Allyson and David Niven in the lead roles. It may also have inspired the comedy Merrily We Live (1938), with Constance Bennett, Brian Ahearne and My Man Godfrey's Alan Mowbray. 


My Man Godfrey

Year: 1936
Genre: Comedy
Country: USA
Director: Gregory La Cava

Cast William Powell (Godfrey), Carole Lombard (Irene Bullock), Alice Brady (Angelica Bullock), Gail Patrick (Cornelia Bullock), Eugene Pallette (Alexander Bullock), Jean Dixon (Molly), Alan Mowbray (Tommy Gray), Mischa Auer (Carlo), Pat Flaherty (Mike), Robert Light (Faithful George)

Uncredited: Grady Sutton (Charlie Van Rumple), Selmer Jackson (Blake, a guest), Franklin Pangborn (Master of ceremonies), Edward Gargan (First detective), James Flavin (Second detective), Bob Perry (Doorman), Grace Fields, Katherine Perry, Harley Wood, David Horsley, Philip Merrick and Elaine Cochrane (Socialites), Ernie Adams (Forgotten man), Phyllis Crane (Party guest), Jack Chefe (Headwaiter), Eddie Fetherston (Process server), Art Singley (Chauffeur), Reginald Mason (Mayor), Jane Wyman (Girl at party), Bess Flowers (Guest)

Screenplay Morrie Ryskind, Eric Hatch, contributing writers (uncredited) Robert Presnell, Zoë Akins, based on the novel by Eric Hatch  Cinematography Ted Tetzlaff  Art director Charles D. Hall  Editors Ted Kent, Russell Schoengarth  Music director Charles Previn  Special effects John P. Fulton  Carole Lombard's gowns Travis Banton  Executive producer Charles R. Rogers  A Gregory La Cava production

Running time 94 mins (black & white)

Production company/Distributor Universal Pictures

Comments

  1. One of my favorite comedies. It's definitely a product of its time, but as a Gen Xer, I didn't find it as dated as most people do. In the 1980s, we loved-to-hate-the-yuppies, the same way Depression-era audiences hated the upper class. Isn't that something? LOL! Anyhow, I thought Lombard and Powell were dynamite, and Mischa Auer always makes me laugh. Great review!

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