An Appreciation – My Man Godfrey
In the middle of it all is Godfrey, always remaining calm and collective. Here is a man who takes pride in what he does. He is so exacting in being the most proper and best butler he can be that his polite demeanor clashes in the face of the absurd family he has become a part of. Take, for example, the scene where Irene attempts to kiss him. Godfrey is so appropriate with his duties that despite having his own curiosity about her, he knows that that line should not be crossed, to the point that he banishes her out of his bedroom. See how even while drunk, Godfrey still manages to serve his employers with almost undeniable charm and elegance. Even when accused of stealing Cornelia’s pearl necklace, he takes everything in stride, fully aware of this insane group of people, but always reserved with his actions. One of the best scenes in the movie is when Irene, in an attempt to attract attention from Godfrey, very theatrically swoons and bemoans herself in front of everyone. She literally follows Godfrey around the room trying to get some kind of emotional response from him, and yet he remains upright and fast, adding to the scene’s hilarity.
Underneath his polite exterior, Godfrey has a very passionate, emotional center that he avoids sharing with anyone else until the very last scenes of the movie. This is what makes the film great—these deeper, more poignant levels that it addresses, which may go unnoticed at first. Godfrey was not born homeless, but was actually brought up in a life of luxury and wealth; he was once one of the members of the upper class that the film attempts to satirize. However, he fell deeply in love with a previous woman, and through that love gave up his entire fortune for her. He punished himself with guilt over what he went through with his past love, and found himself in the city dump. It was through this life of poverty that Godfrey came to realize the hardworking nature of the everyman—he experienced life on the other side of the fence and grew to appreciate and sympathize with those less fortunate. And it was through that experience that he found the ability within him to help the Bullock family, when it is revealed by Alexander that they have lost their fortune and are at risk of being homeless themselves. With the help of an old friend (Pat Flaherty) and the use of smart investment dealings, Godfrey retained his lost wealth (only in the movies!) and uses it to help the Bullock family back on their feet. This great act of kindness by Godfrey teaches the Bullock family to be more aware of the world around them, and to use what they have to help others instead of just themselves.
What I take away from the film, besides its biting satire and wacky comedy, is just how beautiful it looks. The black and white photography here is absolutely breathtaking; each scene seems to shimmer with a hazy, white glow. The lights shine off of the surfaces noticeably. Pause the movie at nearly any instance and you’ll see a frame of near perfect composition and lighting. Even the opening credits establish great use of black and white, with the names of all involved sparkling from the bright lights of the city. The art-deco style of the set design lent to this world style and sophistication; people just seemed to move within it gracefully. It’s a shame that black and white photography is seen today as pretentious or uninviting, because that is simply nowhere near the truth. This was one of the films known for having a colorized version of it made; other notable ones include It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). Do yourself a favor: compare the colorized versions of these films to the black and white originals. Which of them look more appealing? Which appears more timeless? I love color photography as much as the next person, but not colorized versions of films originally made in black and white. Not only does it simply not look as good, it bastardizes the original visions of its makers.
William Powell and Carole Lombard were previously married before making this film, and their chemistry is easily apparent. What a great contrast the two have. Lombard plays Irene almost like a female version of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, energetic and silly but at the same time lovely and engaging. She is so inherently good with her characterization, even though she’s completely off the wall with her personality. Irene is the one person who truly cares about Godfrey and his well-being, going to the point of inserting herself into his life without the need of his approval. Powell, best known for the Thin Man films, brings a performance perfect for his role. He was one of the great “gentleman” actors, among the ranks of Cary Grant or Clark Gable. His performance is so distinguished and courteous that some may tend to not see how multilayered it truly is. Remember that this is a man who has seen two opposite ends of the spectrum; he has seen both a life of luxury and a life of poverty. If we were to watch the film a second time, we would be able to regard his performance with more clarity, seeing the development in his character, now knowing his background. These are two great performances, and they work perfectly in sync with one another.
What makes My Man Godfrey one of the great movies is not only its entertainment value, but also its effort to reflect the time in which it is set. This film was made and revolved around a decade where few people had much hope, and through its story, comedy, and performances, did what it could to provide a kind of relief for these people for even a short instant. Its sharp dialogue and clear satire echoed audience’s feelings; it was aware of how things were and tried to show others that it understood where the audience was coming from. Sure, the film didn’t solve the problems of the world or take America out of its own debt, but it did accomplish what all movies should strive to do: to open us up to a world that we may not be able to see everyday, and to live lives we may never have the chance to.