An Appreciation – My Man Godfrey
The other day, I was looking through my movie collection, and ran across a film I loved but had totally forgotten about. I put it in my player and watched it for old time’s sake, and once again, I fell back in love with it just as I did the first time. My Man Godfrey (1936), the classic screwball comedy directed by Gregory La Cava and featuring the stars William Powell and Carole Lombard, is one of the very best of its genre. When one talks about the great all-time comedies, this film must be mentioned. It is a film that has everything you can ask for in a movie of its kind, and yet there are layers upon layers of deeper undertones that elevate it above the normal fare. Very few films from that time were more aware of the current social situation; it satirizes the state of affairs during one of America’s toughest moments, but wrapped within the highest form of entertainment. It is a wonderful film with a conscientious mind.
The decade the film was released was one of the most difficult times in American history. The Great Depression dominated the era; countless people lived meager lives, fighting to survive on the most minimal of resources. This was a time when less than ten percent of the country controlled more than half of its wealth. Americans stood in long bread lines, and very often lived on the streets. People craved for some form of escape, to forget about their current situation, if only for a short time. Very often they would find refuge in movie theaters, where great stars would help them forget where they were and live in a fantasy world two hours at a time. Modern audiences may point out that films made during this era did not seem realistic, and that was the point—no one wanted see realism in their movies. One can only imagine how audiences felt when a film like this was made, criticizing and making fun of the bourgeois and upper class socialites, and showing them that they were not forgotten people. Saying to them that there were those out there who were trying hard to represent their voice.
In this movie, that voice is represented in the character of Godfrey (Powell). Right from the start, we see Godfrey living out in the city dump, with clothes tattered and a face unshaven. He is one of the “forgotten men” that the film continually describes: those that have fallen off the path of prosperity and into a life of little means. In other words, he’s a homeless bum. Also, right away we see the satire against the out of touch upper class, when he is visited by sisters Cornelia (Gail Patrick) and Irene Bullock (Lombard). The two travel to the city dump as part of a scavenger hunt that their social circle put on. One of the requirements of winning the scavenger hunt is to bring back one of these forgotten men to the grand ball, and in Godfrey they find their perfect candidate. Right away, we see the difference that both Irene and Cornelia have, as they continuously compete with one another. Whereas Cornelia attempts to bribe Godfrey to come along with her, Irene is a little more cautious, a little more aware of Godfrey’s feelings (being that she saw Godfrey push Cornelia into a pile of ash after her bribe). Godfrey, in turn, is immediately intrigued and amused by Irene; he realizes her stature but also sees the almost aloof goodness she has, and decides to come along with her, if only to help her beat Cornelia to the finish line.
The grand ball is where we see the major example of the attitude that the film takes against the upper class. I found it amusing how this party is so disorganized and so chaotic, while involving a group of people that are supposed to be the most sophisticated of all the classes. I especially found the introduction of Irene’s mother, Angelica Bullock (Alice Brady), to be particularly funny: with her making her grand entrance escorted by a goat. They don’t see how silly and outright demeaning it is to so unwisely flaunt their wealth, and Godfrey immediately notices this when he arrives. They treat him less like a person and more like an animal, standing him on a platform in front of everyone to see and asking him questions to validate his own homelessness. Godfrey, understandably, uses this opportunity to denounce the whole ball, but through his protest comes to find a rescuer in Irene. Seeing how he is broke and down on his luck, but at the same time grateful for his act of kindness towards her, Irene develops feelings for him, and despite the warnings of her own family members, hires Godfrey to be their butler. It’s hard not to fall in love with a character that so earnestly asks someone if they know how to “buttle.”
Irene’s family is what makes this film a screwball comedy, because just about every member of it is insane. Yes, they are caricatures, but each are drawn well and made very distinguishable from one another. Their insanity manifests almost immediately after Godfrey walks into their home. There’s Angelica, the mother of the household—with her near shrieking voice, she always seems to be unaware of the situation until after the fact. The first encounter Godfrey has with her as a butler involves Angelica hungover, imagining little pixies hopping around in her bed. Then there’s Cornelia herself. Bitter about both losing the scavenger hunt and being pushed into a pile of ash by Godfrey, she spends much of the time trying to get him fired, and yet we realize that she does this not because she hates him, but because it’s obvious she has her own infatuation with him—if she can’t have Godfrey, then neither should Irene. Carlo (Mischa Auer), is Angelica’s “protégé,” a court jester relegated to playing the piano, reading literature, and dancing around like an ape, to the amusement of the family; and for some reason, he always seems to be hungry. Alexander (Eugene Pallette) is the head of the family, always complaining about their wastefulness and appearing to be just as tired of the craziness as any other person would be. And finally, there’s Molly (Jean Dixon) the house maid, who has seen butlers come in and out as often as the front door opens and shuts.