With the Great Depression in full effect, the eloquent and witty Godfrey (William Powell) quickly and hilariously goes from “forgotten man” to “my man.”
The possessor in question is Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard), the youngest and least abrasive woman of the ridiculously wealthy Bullock family. When Irene collects the homeless Godfrey at his current residence, the city dump, she scores big in the upper-crust scavenger hunt game she’s participating in. The crass dehumanization of a “forgotten man” as a checklist item isn’t lost on Irene, who only takes Godfrey with her at his own volition, to teach a lesson to her bullying older sister Cornelia.
Just minutes earlier, you see, Cornelia swooped in from her family’s limousine, determined to reel in the first homeless man she could hook with her offer of five dollars. Godfrey, insulted as he ought to be, responds to her offer by pushing the snooty busybody into an ash pile. This crowd-pleasing aggression against her mean and domineering older sister (Gail Patrick) is more than enough to flip Irene head over heels as well, though in the heart-fluttery and far less ash pile-y way. No doubt to keep him in close proximity, not to mention a killer tuxedo, she offers the good man a job as the family butler, which he promptly accepts. He will be her first “protégé”.
Directed with a brilliant crackle and a fairly deceptively sharp social edge by Gregory La Cava, an oft-overlooked titan of this niche, My Man Godfrey (1936) retains its standing as one of the absolute greatest screwball comedies ever made for a host of good reasons.
The film’s screenplay by Morrie Ryskind and Eric Hatch (based upon his novel) is simultaneously “of the moment” and pleasingly escapist. The 1930’s chasm-like dichotomy between the super-rich and the downtrodden isn’t so far removed from today’s social divides in America and elsewhere. Though much has changed in the eighty-two years since My Man Godfrey first cracked up audiences with its nutty take on contemporary reality, it’s fair to be taken aback by just how recognizable the fragility of status, wealth, and security can be.
Here of course, it’s all played for laughs; though La Cava’s sharp and intentional commentary is, nonetheless, ever present. One needn’t be a student of Depression era anthropology nor an “eat the rich” advocate to agree with Godfrey when he addresses the bustling scavenger hunt crowd of formal-wearing socialites as “empty-headed nitwits”. For his trouble, the job he’s arm-twisted into by Irene — that of the Bullock’s new butler — is quickly revealed by the seen-it-all maid (Jean Dixon) to be a revolving door position.
The Bullocks burn through butlers quicker than they burn through cigarettes. Godfrey, being a bit of a man of mystery, proves to be more attuned not just to the family foibles that need fixing, but also to what it is specifically to be a butler. Over time, hints of his secret past come out; though, for the best, a full picture is never formally granted.
It’s the kooky individual drama of the Bullocks, from mother’s (Alice Brady) hen-cackling obsession with her own weird protégé (Mischa Auer) to levelheaded father’s (Eugene Pallette) exasperation at his family’s recklessness and the fact that he’s quickly going broke, that keep My Man Godfrey’s narrative clicking. Yet, it’s the great Carole Lombard who effectively steals the show. Irene, as desperately dithery as she is lovesick over Godfrey, is, believe it or not, the fragile heart of the lavish household.
Lombard is in top form here, despite the role of Irene being more of a glorified supporting part. Her Irene is both smart enough and scattered enough to sell whatever the heck she does, or we’re told she’s already done. (Rode a horse into the family library, and left it there? Just another wild night on the town!)
Though already operating at or near the top of her game as America’s top female comedy star, (soon she’d be the top paid star in Hollywood) Lombard went all in for this flighty character, sporting little wings of hair over her face that’d look more at home on the ankles of the Sub-Mariner. Irene may be a basket case, but she’s one basket case that netted Lombard a much-desired Academy Award nomination.
And then there’s William Powell. The Thin Man star, it must be said, has a hard time notbeing compellingly erudite, dashing, and at least five steps ahead of absolutely everyone else. A matinee idol far too smart for today’s multiplexes, Powell is a man who embodies every facet of his time.
His voice unmistakable, his diction and words cutting to a tee, his mustache/whiskers perfect, and his eyes like deeply knowing, gleaming glass, Powell carries the deceptively complex My Man Godfrey with the seeming effortlessness in which his character carries a doilies beverage tray up a marble staircase. Godfrey is an exercise in many things, perfect casting being at the top of the list.
Well over a decade ago, Criterion saw fit to rescue My Man Godfrey from the public domain ash heap it had been residing in for years. Though impulse-buy displays were lousy with bargain DVD and VHS copies of the film, a definitive edition was absolutely not to be had. That is, until said rescuing. Adorned with an impressively shimmering transfer and a tidy bundle of extras, Criterion’s DVD release of My Man Godfrey (spine number 114) became a must for any self respecting home media collection.
But, that was then. In the HD era of today, many have been long clamoring for Criterion to revisit their once-great catalog entry. Finally, at long last, their gleaming limousine has arrived again for Godfrey, ready to whisk it once more into our individual nuthouses. The Blu-ray, with its astonishingly good picture and sound, is worth the wait.
Many new bonus features are served up, though it must be pointed out that, for whatever reasons, several from the previous Criterion DVD edition have not made the transition. Primary among these is the audio commentary track by film historian Bob Gilpin. It’s strange that Criterion would opt to let one of their vintage commentaries drift off into the mists of time, but nevertheless, there it goes. Completists will want to hang onto their DVDs; though all will want to make the upgrade.
The newly released Blu-ray boasts a new high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; a new piece about the film with jazz and film critic Gary Giddins; a short new discussion about director Gregory La Cava with critic Nick Pinkerton; a brief outtakes reel, in which the golden age stars swear on film; the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film from 1938, which stars actors William Powell, Carole Lombard, Gail Patrick, and Mischa Auer; vintage newsreels from the thirties documenting the class divide during the Great Depression; the film’s trailer; and a nice published essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme, replacing the DVD’s essay by Diane Jacobs.
Additionally, the spot-on brilliance of the Blu-ray’s new artwork, from the minimalist cartoon likenesses of the cast and their world (by the artist Gregory Gallant, better known as Seth) to the kick of metallic aqua that comes through, is not to be overlooked. It’s always nice when the Blu-ray package is as handsome and tonally perfect as the film itself is.
Prosperity may or may not be just around the corner, but thanks to Criterion, a definitive keeper edition of My Man Godfrey can be at least that close. Be sure to pick up this treasure worth scavenging.