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My Man Godfrey

Posted by Cantankerous Panda on July 2, 2010

MY MAN GODFREY (1936)

“The only difference between a derelict and a man is a job.”

Another classic screwball comedy to throw into the mix. This title was always familiar to me, and yet I never really knew any of the stars, nor did I know anything about the plot. I found myself quite surprised and amused by the film, while also slightly irked throughout. The film is quick to the pick-up, dumping the viewer in a trash heap with a number of homeless men. When a few members of the bourgeoisie pull up to the site, one particularly snooty woman offers $5 to her homeless man of choice, telling him that they are taking part in a high-class scavenger hunt and that bringing in a “forgotten man” will bring their team a huge amount of points and the win. Little did she know that the man she chose is smart, quick-witted, and uncompromising of his dignity, nor is he afraid to speak back to those with money and power. Instead of helping her, he opts to help her kinder–albeit naive and spoiled–sister, and subjects himself to becoming an almost zoo-like spectacle to a room full of upper-crust men and women.

This one's name is 'Godfrey'.

Thus we are introduced to our protagonist, Godfrey, played by the ever-charming William Powell (The Thin Man movies, The Great Gatsby).  It is abundantly clear from the start that Godfrey is no ordinary “lost man”, as homeless men were called, and the two women–rivaling sisters, in fact–who encountered him in the city dump react to his peculiarities in very different ways. Cornelia Bullock, played by Gail Patrick (Stage Door, My Favorite Wife), is the conniving and shrewd older sister who is more than displeased with Godfrey’s attitude toward her. Irene, played by Carole Lombard (Mr. and Mrs. Smith), does not share her sister’s mean spirit, but she also lack’s her sister’s acumen; she often acts as a petulant child, full of jealousy and temper tantrums. And love. This is a story about love, in a most peculiar form.

This image is misleading.

The chance encounter with Godfrey turns into a tale of obsession and devotion, as Irene feels the need to ‘be responsible’ for Godfrey’s well-being and entices him to become her ‘protégé’ by hiring him as the family’s butler. She has a deep caring for Godfrey, of course, but she also intends on wooing him without even the barest hint of subtlety.

The stars in her eyes are pretty much permanent throughout the film.

The screwball aspect of this film is that Godfrey is clearly far more intelligent and respectable than any of his employers, with the possible exception of the patriarch, Alexander Bullock, played by Eugene Pallette (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington). Godfrey is clearly leagues above Irene, who certainly manages to make a fool of herself numerous times throughout the film; but as much as he tries to rebuff her advances, she is committed to getting her man. I sometimes felt that the romantic plot line was more annoying than charming, though Lombard played the role rather well. What hooked me into the film was Godfrey himself, and the mystery behind his story. Upon our introduction to Godfrey, it was quite obvious that there’s some intricate backstory to his character and that he is far too educated to be simply another random homeless man.

Albeit, a rather attractive homeless man.

While the audience is left looking for the truth behind his story, he proceeds to become somewhat part of the family, having battles with Cornelia, fighting off the advances of the overly-dramatic Irene, and dealing with the general craziness and absurdities of the entire Bullock family, particularly the mother, portrayed by Alice Brady (In Old Chicago, Young Mr. Lincoln). While I thoroughly enjoyed the clever dialogue in the script (based off Eric Hatch’s novel and written by Eric Hatch, Morrie Ryskind, Robert Presnell Sr., and director Gregory La Cava), I was confused as to the romantic comedy aspect of the film as none of Irene’s feelings appeared to reciprocated.

Theirs is the love of gods.

And yet, that is part of the screwball humour. It’s a game of ridiculous cat and sensible mouse, but does the mouse secretly wish to be captured? The answer, and the ending of the film, comes as a complete surprise to our mouse–er, man–Godfrey.

A man can only resist such looks for so long...

Do I recommend this film? Yes. It’s an interesting look at the bourgeoisie at the time, and the witty dialogue is incredibly delightful. I also think it has a strange feeling of relevancy at this particular point in time. As for the screwball comedy, Lombard may get on your nerves, but if you take the film lightly, you can see the comedic charm of her character. She has some great lines and some truly enjoyable moments with Powell (who is the star of the film, to me, even though the screwball character usually gets all the love), and the movie is still rather interesting for those who can’t get on board with Irene’s insanity. There’s also a great supporting cast–I didn’t even mention Mrs. Bullock’s own protégé, Carlo, played by Mischa Auer (who was nominated for an Oscar for this role) nor did I mention the maid Molly, played by Jean Dixon (Holiday). I think that director Gregory La Cava managed to make this a tight and clever little comedy that has put William Powell forever on my radar. Yes, I have developed a new classic film star ‘crush’, so you will likely see Powell’s name popping again in the near future.

I loved the opening credits...

And now, trivia!

This is another film selected for preservation by the national film registry, being referred to as culturally significant by the United States Library of Congress. It was the first film to have four acting nominations in all four categories (the year that the supporting actor/actress categories were introduced) and is apparently the only movie to ever get Oscar nominations for writing, directing and all four acting awards without being nominated for Best Picture, as well as the only film ever to be nominated for all of those awards and win absolutely none of them. As for the romance in the film, William Powell and Carole Lombard had been divorced for three years before the filming of this movie, and when Powell was brought on board he deemed Lombard to be the only acceptable choice for Irene.

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