"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

October 11, 2011

"My Man Godfrey" (1936) with William Powell (Film review)

My Man Godfrey was made in the depths of the Depression, a period that seems strangely familiar, with just such a wide gulf between have-nots and the very rich as today in the U.S. But this is a Hollywood film, so it stops short of social commentary and winds up with the usual feel-good fairy tale.

The idle rich spend their leisure playing games and one such a party game brings scatterbrained socialite Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) to the city dump where she meets Godfrey (William Powell), a vagrant. He has just rebuffed the haughty advances of Irene's proud sister Angelica (Alice Brady), and plays the game along with Irene. Out of gratitude she hires him as the family butler... but we will see that there is more to Godfrey than meets the eye.

[Image from Wikipedia]

The film satirizes the life of the nutty Bullocks: two empty-headed sisters, one bitchy and the other petulant, and a loony mother (Alice Brady) who has a live-in protégé, a composer mainly known for leaping around the room like a gorilla. Father-businessman Alexander (character actor Eugene Pallette ) is the only sane one: "What this family needs is discipline. I've been a patient man, but when people start riding horses up the front steps and parking them in the library, that's going a little too far. This family's got to settle down!"

The professionally buttling Godfrey, with typical attentive posture and measured voice, survives this menagerie, even when Irene starts imagining she is in love with him ( "I'd like to sew his buttons on sometime, when they come off" - as Ebert reminds us, elegant trousers didn't have zippers but buttons in the 30s). But at a party he is almost unmasked by a college friend - far from a vagrant, he is a rich person himself, down on his luck because of a broken heart. So when the finances of the Bulloks are in peril, he saves them and also buys up the city dump to turn the location into a posh restaurant (the other vagrants are employed as waiters)... and of course, Hollywood-style, the girl does get him in the end.

This film by Gregory La Cava is beautifully photographed, from the opening credits resembling lighted billboards to the interiors and elegant dresses. Moreover, it boasts sophisticated humor and a great set of actors. Happily, contrary to most other screwball comedies, it doesn't loose itself in slapstick or shouting matches. I was so caught up in the spell of this wonderful film that I didn't mind the romantic, implausible  ending - it was just great fun.

My Man Godfrey is one of the great comedies of the 20th century.
My Man Godfrey is in the public domain. Watch it at Internet Archive.