Saturday, May 14, 2011

My Man Godfrey (1936)

It’s very easy to tell when a film was made in 1930’s Hollywood.  Stylistically the lighting is very flat, the camera movement is limited, mainly photographed in long or medium shots to give the feeling of a play, and the characters are dressed in the latest fashions, so sheik for their time that today they stand out.  Also these films, less so as the decade went on, contain searing social commentary.  This is an adequate distillation of My Man Godfrey, a beloved screwball comedy more in the tradition of drama, though the characters are oddballs and the women speak at a mile a minute.

Godfrey is a “forgotten man”, one of the homeless living in New York Dump 32.  One night a group of society people come to him asking for his help for their scavenger hunt.  You see, the two women need a forgotten man to come back to a posh hotel for them to win the game.  As Irene Bullock, played by Carole Lombard, notes, one does not win a prize but merely the honor of winning.  Godfrey ruthlessly turns down Irene’s sister Cornelia, someone whose very name describes her witchy snobbery, but he helps out the friendlier and perhaps more naive Irene.  He wins her the game and she feels so indebted to him that she gives him the job of the Bullock family’s new butler.

The high jinks or at least the narrative takes off from here, but My Man Godfrey is seldom laugh-out-loud funny.  Most of the comedy comes from how out of touch the Bullock women are, and there are some genuine laughs.  But the film feels more like a depression-era fable, about a spoilt heir (spoiler—Godfrey) giving up wealth to communicate with the downtrodden, finding with those who struggle a kinship and honesty.  It is easy to see why when looking, say, at Irene’s mother Angelica; she keeps a protégé called Carlo who is nothing more than a freeloader, accepting insults from Mr. Bullock as long as he does not have to work for money.  In fact the very word causes him pain.  Angelica, or Mrs. Bullock, is a daffy, clueless woman who does not take into consideration how much money their family wastes, or that her husband constantly tries to mention his business troubles.  This talk upsets poor Carlo.

I will again admit to a bias against comedies.  I simply prefer dramas, but the screwball genre is interesting.  My textbook example is His Girl Friday, which is one of my favorite films.  That film is wall to wall laughs, and it gave me the impression that screwball comedies are farce and quick gags.  An online search regarding the genre informed me that it really is indefinable.  I like “Sex comedy without the sex”, as defined by critic Andrew Sarris.  The few screwball comedies I remember involve courtship, usually the woman directly vying for the love of the handsome, befuddled man.  They are innocent fun steeped in the moral traditions of another era.  In fact, at one point My Man Godfrey played more like an early 1900s piece than a more modern and less moralistic 1930s.  The 1930s of course were a very controversial time for American film, with censorship becoming a reality by 1934.  That the film is less comedic is not a fault of the picture.  As far as it goes in screwball territory it succeeds, but the film is about the carelessness of the idle rich.

William Powell’s Godfrey seems most out of place in a screwball comedy.  I think it is his character that blurs the lines of genre.  He is world-weary and so sure of himself.  He minds the social hierarchy and is careful to remain distant but compliant with the at-odds Bullock sisters.  Irene loves him and Cornelia is after revenge for his initial snub.  Godfrey, as he says to an old friend, was not equipped to handle struggle in life.  His rich upbringing left him child-like.  The adult world disillusioned him.  The film feels at times something like a Frank Capra film, or Make Way for Tomorrow, with its biting sociopolitical observations.  I have to say Godfrey’s character distracted me a bit.  Not only is he never meant to be funny, his character seems above the film, as if he merely watches the Bullocks and judges them.  This is in fact what Godfrey does, but as such he belongs in another film.  Cary Grant never played a screwball character like this.  He was often the male lead and he was always as sharp and odd as the women he was up against—Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russle and Irene Dunne.  The fault is not Carole Lombard who is very good here; nor is it actor William Powell, but Godfrey’s.

There is nothing wrong with the film.  I suppose I liked it.  It held my attention totally from the fascinating opening titles sequence, but I must admit I was underwhelmed.  The story was not exactly predictable but the scenarios and resolution were not surprising.  That didn’t bother me, though.  What saves the film is the talent.  Carole Lombard does some of her finer work here, maybe because her character is more interesting than some of her other roles.  Irene is a girl who knows what she wants and can’t accept or understand why her feelings can’t be met by others, in this case Godfrey.  She is so good that I think a great compliment to her is that I recognized where Lucille Ball got her comic persona.  Alice Brady plays Mrs. Bullock and steals the show.

Perhaps I need to devour more screwball comedies in order to appreciate My Man Godfrey more.  I haven’t seen enough even for my own liking.  I don’t know if it’s necessary because I did have a reaction to the picture, a lukewarm one, but because the film exists in a time and genre that makes it an historical piece of work—a definitive 1930s screwball comedy—a wider understanding of the niche genre might broaden its appeal.

My Man Godfrey (1936)
Director: Gregory La Cava
Writers: Eric Hatch and Morrie Ryskind
Original novel by Eric Hatch
Stars: William Powell, Carole Lombard and Alice Brady
In English
Runtime: 94 minutes

IMDB link:


My Man Godfrey is available for free viewing at The Internet Archive:

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