“God, but this film is beautiful,” Roger Ebert once said of Gregory La Cava’s 1936 satirical screwball comedy My Man Godfrey. “This movie, and the actors in it, and its style of production, and the system that produced it, and the audiences that loved it, have all been replaced by pop culture of brainless vulgarity. But the movie survives, and to watch it is to be rescued from some people who don’t care that it makes a difference …”
As was so often the case with Mr. Ebert, his words fully encapsulate the deep, at times inexpressible emotions that many film fans have for the movies they love. Upon first seeing the film as a 15 year old kid, it was evident to even my sheltered mind that this was more than just a funny movie. There were plenty of other things at work in My Man Godfrey that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, and it was the discovery of those mechanics that kept me coming back time and time again–each time, as with the best classic films, like greeting a dear old friend.
There were plenty of films prior to Godfrey that made me fall in love with old movies, but this was the film that opened my eyes to the fact that films–regardless of age– could be more than just entertainment; that they could say something important. And that the most searing social indictments could be made through the powerful weapon of humor.
(It also showed me that men like William Powell no longer existed, which is another story and a therapy session unto itself…)
Godfrey makes it clear from the first frame that this film is going to be different in just about every sense of the word.
Long regarded as one of the most inventive credit sequences from the studio era, we are met with a bright neon cityscape whose signs blink with the opening credits. The camera pans (no, it glides–for everything in Godfrey glides) along with a rousing, jazzy score, in a lengthy shot that is decadent and glittery, with the city’s bright lights reflected in the water below. As the highly complicated matte shot continues (executed by none other than special effects wizard John Fulton), we realize the waters belong to the East River as the Queensboro Bridge comes into view. The blinking lights fade, along with the music, and the camera settles onto a depressed shanty town under the bridge.
There on a city dump, vagrants live in a polite, civilized society of newspaper houses and cardboard beds. They are the Forgotten Men of the Great Depression— left to rot in dirt while Manhattan’s high society parties high above their shadow. This is going to be class-conscious comedy at its finest.
Bursting into the well-mannered civility of tramp life are two spoiled, deliriously disillusioned young Park Avenue socialites. Cornelia and Irene Bullock, glittering in their expensive silk and furs, descend upon the down-and-out itinerants with eager claws. They are in the midst of a scavenger hunt being hosted at the Waldorf Ritz Hotel, and the last item to be found before they can win their prize? A Forgotten Man.
For what could be more offensively insensitive than for the idle rich to find amusement in the plight of the poor, and to exploit the helplessness of poverty with something as absurd as a scavenger hunt.
The eldest Bullock—the frighteningly beautiful Cornelia (played with venomous sex appeal by Gail Patrick) offers one of the tramps $5 to come with her to the Waldorf Ritz. When the tramp realizes he is to be paraded in front of high society for a lark, he darkens and verbally lays into the heiress with such anger that she falls backwards onto an ash pile.
While Cornelia marches of in a huff, the younger sister (a delightfully dizzy Carole Lombard) is quite happy to make a quick exit, but not before Godfrey gives her a piece of his mind. However, her doe-eyed innocence tempers him and he suggests that the two go to the Waldorf Ritz. “Let’s beat Cornelia.”
Upon arrival at the hotel, Godfrey finds himself in the middle of a mad house— the refined upper crust of the Manhattan aristocracy have converged in a glittering ballroom like a marauding band of pirates—goats, goldfish, spinning wheels and all manner of livestock are present as their captors battle it out to win the scavenger contest.
Indeed, as Mr. Bullock says (the booming baritone voiced Eugene Pallette) “all you need to start an asylum is a room and the right kind of people.”
The only figure of reason and dignity to be found in the room is the forgotten man that Irene drags to the platform. Upon winning the scavenger hunt, Godfrey is urged to make a speech. His words set the tone for the rest of the picture:
‘My purpose in coming here tonight was twofold. First, I wanted to aid this young lady. Second, I was interested to see how a pack of empty-headed nitwits conducted themselves. My curiosity has been satisfied. I assure you, it will be a pleasure to return to a society of really important people.’
And here is where we understand that although we are in for an hour and a half of outlandish zanity (I know zanity isn’t a word, but it should be, darn it!), in what is a peerless screwball comedy, we are in actuality witnessing a relentlessly acerbic statement against the social injustices that were so violently felt during the dark throes of the depression.
Gregory LaCava examines this social dichotomy by implanting the dignified, decent Godfrey as the butler for the outlandish and thoroughly ridiculous Bullock family. Ridiculous doesn’t begin to cover it: it isn’t uncommon for the Bullock girls to march horses into the house and them promptly forget them in the library. Nor is it uncommon for Mr. Bullock to have to pay off policemen and Process Servants for his family’s wild indiscretions.
Scrubbed up and shaven, Godfrey cuts a distinguished figure that is the sole voice of reason in the household, and at once captures the heart and whimsy of little Irene and her continually unsuccessful attempts at capturing his attentions make for much of the film’s gaiety.
LaCava’s direction here is fluid. My Man Godfrey possesses the look and feel (and occasional nuance) of a Lubitsch film, while embodying the madcap insanity of a Marx Brothers romp. So keen is LaCava’s navigation of farce, that even though LaCava unequivocally makes the film’s message clear from act one scene one, he never makes us feel as though we are watching a ‘message film.’
Even though the film has a simply beautiful sheen to it—all silvery, shimmery, celluloid yumminess—LaCava manages to be very economical in his excess. The Bullocks’ universe is one of excess, yet never does LaCava allow Godfrey film to become self-indulgent or shallow. He frames are gorgeous, yet purposeful; his frequent use of close-ups are never superficial: they either serve to advance the story or bring depth to the character. Of which, there are many and most of them unforgettable. (Godfrey’s omniscient, all-knowing gaze; Cornelia’s devilish smile; the childish innocence in Irene’s eyes.)
Carole Lombard is at her unbridled best as the lovesick loony Irene Bullock who, although a spoiled little space cadet, has an endearing heart of gold and would be quite happy to live on a city dump with Godfrey for the rest of her life. Her fearsome sister Cornelia is, as Godfrey puts it, a Park Avenue Brat, who decided to make an example out of Godfrey when he remains impervious to her advances by trying to make his life at the Bullock house something of a nightmare. Which includes her malevolent scheme to frame him as a common thief.
Alice Brady is an absolute delight as Angelica Bullock—a pleasantly dizzy socially conscious butterfly with a protégé named Carlo—the achingly funny Mischa Auer–who is Mrs. Bullock’s pride and joy as well as the bane of Mr. Bullock’s existence. While Mr. Bullock’s hard earned fortune dwindles thanks to his family’s excesses (and his bad investments) it is easy for him to take most of his frustration out on the freeloading Carlo, an artiste in training whom Mrs. Bullock feels needs a constant atmosphere of idle reflection in order to cultivate his creativity.
And while the Bullock family delivers many high jinks and hilarity, the film as a whole is anchored in Godfrey’s resilient self-respect. He may be a homeless butler (or is he?) but he possesses more grace and decorum than any in the socially affluent Bullock household. William Powell’s dexterity of performance is quite remarkable and it is the absolute pillar upon which the film is built. His performance—shrewd, discreet and ever so urbane—is certainly why, nearly 80 years on, the film still ticks like clockwork.
Godfrey reveals himself to be one of Society’s upper crust—Godfrey Park of Boston who, after suffering a devastating blow to his pride from a failed romance, took up residence on the city dump and therein learned true self respect and dignity from the men around him. His wily, business savvy leads him to single-handedly saving Mr. Bullock from financial ruin, and in so doing teaches Cornelia the fallacy of false pride, all the while trying to wean the smitten Irene from his arm for her own good … that is to say, his own good. Against Godfrey’s better judgment, he’s developed ‘that funny feeling’ for the girl and decides it best to make his exit.
Irene, of course, has other plans.
The film concludes in a perfect circle as Godfrey transforms his old home at the city dump into a revitalization project called (what else?) The Dump: a swanky nightclub that provides quality lodging and honest work to the Forgotten Men who’d lived there. Irene, determined to be Mrs. Godfrey Smith/Park/Whoever, chases him to the Dump equipped with baskets of firewood and food supplies and blankets, expecting to make a home amidst ash and rubbish piles.
Taking advantage of a justice of the peace dining at the club, Irene grabs hold of Godfrey’s hand and, as the justice begins the ceremony, delivers to her speechless conquest the closing words of the film: “Stand still Godfrey, it’ll all be over in a minute.”
The nobility of the working class everyman has rarely been so venerated, and the idle upper class has rarely been so scathingly reproached as in My Man Godfrey. As the Bright Lights Film Journal puts it, “So long as we live in a world of vulgar inequalities, Godfrey will have relevance.”