Posted: 08/01/2001

 

My Man Godfrey

(1936)

by Del Harvey



A wonderful cast and a very witty script make for one of my all-time favorite films.


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Imagine a cinematic work which dares to juxtapose the quandary of the battle of the sexes with the pathos of poverty and the exaltation of the human spirit. Who could conceive of presenting such heady fare? Surely this must be a contemporary concept, or else the romantic comedy genre would have grown a hundredfold by now. Can anyone imagine the daring of any writer suicidal enough to pitch such an idea to a producer, that paragon of the bottom line and status quo? It must be an art film.

In fact, it was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. Featuring two of the brightest stars of 1936, My Man Godfrey was a film of moderate success. The difference between then and now is one primarily of taste: the movie-going public craved story and character then. And, since film was shot in beautiful black and white, explosions and special effects carried much less impact than a good script with snappy dialogue and interesting characters. Now, I’m quite positive that the producers and film companies were concerned with ticket sales, money being a natural force greater than art or gravity in the land of filmmaking. But I also believe that there was a greater sense of taste, substance, and style during that era.

The framework of the story is straightforward enough. A wealthy young woman must find a “forgotten” man in order to win a scavenger hunt held by the local country club. At a hobo village by the river’s edge she selects the bum who speaks eloquently and has knocked her rival sister on her butt for being so superior. After winning the prize she gives the down-on-his-luck man a job as the family butler. Not a bad idea, since her dysfunctional family cannot seem to keep one around for more than a day. But Godfrey, the “forgotten” man turned butler, takes his job seriously. He stays and eventually he makes a lasting impression, if not a significant change, on all their lives while rebuilding his own.

The great William Powell plays Godfrey, the erudite bum with the Ivy League education and honest streak and a heart of pure silver. Powell also played The Thin Man’s suave and perpetually inebriated rich private eye Nick Charles, nominated for an Academy Award for that role, as well as for My Man Godfrey and Life With Father. Mr. Powell’s charm, wit, and unique sense of comedy are not likely to be seen on the screen ever again.

As the ditzy blonde debutante Irene Bullock, Carole Lombard is superb. An intelligent, beautiful, and incomparable woman, Ms. Lombard often portrayed naïve and dizzy young women, yet could pull it off better than any female actress before or after, in spite of many imitators. Along with Miss Katherine Hepburn, Ms. Lombard is my all-time favorite actress. Few actors could hold a candle to the scathing verbal assaults meted out by Powell, and this role could have been greatly diminished by a lesser performer. Ms. Lombard proves once again what a talent lay beneath those blonde curls. (Note: My Man Godfrey was their only film together, and came about three years after their marriage, which lasted only three years.)

Other actors of note include gravel-voiced Eugene Pallette as father Bullock, whose big eyes countered his imposing bulk and sonorous tones. Gail Patrick is Cornelia, the rival sister, and she’s perfectly cast as the darkly beautiful, permanently spoiled rich girl. Alan Mowbray is elegant and witty as Godfrey’s old school chum who is friend enough to go along with Godfrey’s situation and lend a hand when called upon.

A bit ideological and fairly utopian as penned for the screen by Morrie Ryskind, My Man Godfrey nonetheless upholds those basic truths which many of us aspire to: we are all just people with ideals, hopes and dreams. It is ultimately how we conduct ourselves and how we stand up to diversity which makes us a better human being.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly and lives in Chicago. He is a survivor of Lucasfilm, the Walt Disney Company, and the Directors Guild of America.



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