My Man Godfrey

Director: Gregory La Cava
Screenplay: Morrie Ryskind & Eric Hatch (based on the novel 1101 Park Avenue by Eric Hatch)
Stars: William Powell (Godfrey Parke), Carole Lombard (Irene Bullock), Alice Brady (Angelica Bullock), Eugene Pallette (Alexander Bullock), Gail Patrick (Cornelia Bullock), Alan Mowbray (Tommy Gray), Jean Dixon (Molly), Mischa Auer (Carlo)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1936
Country: U.S.
My Man Godfrey Criterion Collection Blu-ray
My Man Godfrey

The screwball comedy genre emerged out of the thralls of the Great Depression in the 1930s, giving those who were struggling in the collapsed economy a chance to disappear into a darkened movie theater for a few hours and experience the vicarious thrills of the idle and not-so-idle rich and glamorous. Described also as “madcap” or “daffy” comedies, they first gained popularity in 1934 with hits such as Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night and Howard Hawks’s Twentieth Century and lasted until the late ’30s. Screwball comedies almost always took place within the echelon of the upper class, in which well-dressed men and women dealt with absurd situations (usually of their own making) surrounded by the visual trappings of wealth and glamour in gorgeous art-deco New York penthouses. Rarely if ever did a screwball comedy deal with the other side of life—those outside the domain of the rich and famous.

This is where My Man Godfrey stands out, as it consciously allows its story to play out in the middle of the ever-widening gap between the realm of the rich and that of the millions who were unemployed and starving. In most screwball comedies, class standing is simply taken for granted, a silent deal struck between filmmaker and audience. If one were to gauge the U.S. in the 1930s by what was depicted on-screen, one might assume that it was a time of enormous prosperity and frivolity. My Man Godfrey, on the other hand, depicts the divide in the U.S. in the mid-1930s, symbolized during the opening credits that begin with lavish neon titles set against large, upscale buildings in New York and ending on a shantytown in the middle of a riverside city dump.

It is here that we first meet the protagonist, Godfrey Parke (William Powell). It is also here that we meet Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard), a rich young woman who, with her ruthless older sister Cornelia (Gail Patrick), comes to the dump from a lavish party on a scavenger hunt looking for a “forgotten man.” It is quickly evident that Irene is the kind of ditzy but lovable heiress that was a staple of the screwball comedy. When Godfrey asks what a scavenger hunt is, she explains in a stream-of-consciousness rush, “A scavenger hunt is just like a treasure hunt, except in a treasure hunt you find something you want and in a scavenger hunt you find things you don’t want and the one who wins gets a prize, only there really isn’t any prize, it’s just the honor of winning, because all the money goes to charity if there’s any money left over, but then there never is.” This moment is both hilarious and extremely important because it establishes (1) Irene’s zany, un-self-conscious persona; (2) the human ugliness that can be brought about by wealth; and (3) Godfrey’s station in life, along with the other nameless men at the city dump, as “things you don’t want.”

But, there is something about Godfrey that doesn’t quite fit. He is too eloquent and observant and purposeful; his well-spoken manner and dignified restraint are out of place with his three-day beard and scruffy clothes. So, against her mother’s wishes, Irene offers Godfrey the position of family butler, a job he happily accepts. Once he begins working for the Bullocks, though, Godfrey quickly realizes that Irene is hardly an exception; in fact, her entire family might be generously described as “eccentric.” The only possibly normal member of the family is the much-put-upon father, Alexander (Eugene Pallette), whose constant exasperation with the antics of his offspring is a sure sign of his sanity. The wife and mother, Angelica (Alice Brady), is a dotty old airhead who keeps her so-called protégé, a European musician with an enormous appetite named Carlo (Mischa Auer), hanging around the house. And, then there’s Cornelia, a dark-haired beauty who is hellbent on ruining Godfrey’s life because he humiliated her at the city dump when they first met by rebuking her rude offer of five dollars to accompany her to the party as her “find.”

As with all screwball comedies, My Man Godfrey is built largely around romance and deceit. Irene falls in love with Godfrey almost immediately and pursues him with increasing vigor; Godfrey resists her advances, not because he doesn’t like her, but because he has been burned before in the past. Godfrey’s past, though, is something that is kept hazy and unexplained until the last third of the movie, when there are revelations about who he is and how he came to be in the dump that are not entirely surprising. This is part of the movie’s deceit, but there are also subplots involving Cornelia trying to frame Godfrey for stealing her jewelry and a secret business plan that Godfrey executes behind the family’s back.

My Man Godfrey was based on a novel by Eric Hatch (who was perhaps best known as one of the original staff writers for The New Yorker) and adapted by Hatch and Morrie Ryskind, a veteran Broadway writer who had some experience working in film, most notably adapting his own play for the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers (1930). Hatch and Ryskind use the screwball genre in unexpected ways, infusing social critique and a political message into material that was and still is popularly understood as pure escapism. While some of the dichotomies established in the film are understandably simplistic (the silly rich and the noble poor being the most obvious), My Man Godfrey is still socially compelling as well as hilarious.

Director Gregory La Cava, whose films are usually brimming with observation about class discrepancies, brings a light touch to the film, which further differentiates My Man Godfrey from other screwball comedies, as it relies very little on physical violence in the form of slapstick. There is one ridiculously outrageous scene in which Angelica convinces Carlo to do a gorilla impression in order to cheer up Irene while she is in one of her more distressed moods, but overall the film’s comedy stems directly from dialogue and verbal wit and interpersonal sparring. The jokes fly fast and furiously, especially when the wonderful Lombard begins spouting off one of her unpunctuated, breathless diatribes.

And, still, what we remember most when the movie is over is not so much a particular joke (although there are many memorable ones), but the overall message about human dignity, even in the face of hard times. By setting the film squarely within the time of the Great Depression and not shying away from the disparity between the haves and the have-nots, La Cava constantly reminds us of a particular economic reality that is just as relevant today, as more and more of the world’s wealth is hoarded by a smaller and smaller percentage of the population.

Granted, everything turns out happily ever after in the end, but it is a direct result of Godfrey’s self-determined actions. Rather than allowing events to simply run their course, Godfrey takes a decisive step to help both himself and others, which sends a strong message to the audience about the power of self-determination and compassion, two things of which Depression-era America was in desperate need (as we are today). This activism on Godfrey’s part, however, is ironically matched by Irene’s own assertiveness in pursuing him as a love interest, and while My Man Godfrey ends as so many screwball comedies do with the marriage of the principal characters, it is one of the most amusingly ambiguous unions I have ever seen.

My Man Godfrey Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
Audio
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
    Supplements
  • Video program featuring jazz and film critic Gary Giddins
  • Video interview with critic Nick Pinkerton on director Gregory La Cava
  • Outtakes
  • Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film from 1938
  • Newsreels depicting Great Depression class divides
  • Trailer
  • Essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateSeptember 18, 2018

    COMMENTS
    Criterion’s presentation of My Man Godfrey derives from a restoration performed by Universal Pictures in 4K from the original 35mm nitrate camera negative and a composite safety fine-grain print. The transfer is generally fantastic; the black-and-white contrast is very good throughout, with more emphasis on shadings of gray than strong contrast between darkness and light, and there is a nice presence of grain and texture throughout. The overall image is quite soft and even a bit hazy at times, which tends to cut down on the detail, but is reflective of the style of such films in the 1930s. The Linear PCM monaural soundtrack is clean and clear (the source of the transfer was not listed in the liner notes), with very little audible hiss and only the occasion aural artifact. Even at its sometimes deliriously rapid-fire pace, the dialogue is always clear and audible. In terms of supplements, you might want to hold onto your Criterion DVD because the excellent and informative audio commentary by film historian Bob Gilpin has been jettisoned, along with a gallery of production stills. To replace the commentary, we get two new video interviews about the film, one with jazz and film critic Gary Giddins, author of author of Warning Shadows: Home Alone with Classic Cinema (18 min.), who discusses the film and its many merits, and one with critic Nick Pinkerton (17 min.), who discusses in detail the influence of director Gregory La Cava and how the film fits within his larger body of work. Held over from the DVD edition, we have the entire 1938 Lux Radio Theater adaptation, which was hosted by Cecile B. DeMille and retained four of the film’s stars, William Powell, Carole Lombard, Gail Patrick, and Mischa Auer (it also stars the voice of David Niven, who would play Powell’s role in the film’s 1957 widescreen remake). It runs just over an hour in length and is divided into three acts, an intermission, and a curtain call that features a brief interview with author Eric Hatch. The radio adaptation is a joy to those who remember listening to radio programs in the days before television, but it is also instructive in how the story had to be adapted to fit a purely aural medium (because the film is so reliant on humorous dialogue, much of the film’s screenplay could be used verbatim). We also get the film’s original theatrical trailer; four and a half minutes of vintage Depression-era newsreel footage depicting the plight of the “forgotten man”; and one minute of outtakes that seem to have been included for the comic value of seeing Powell, Lombard, and others, whom we are so used to seeing in Production-Code-era movies that forbade any bad language, cussing when they mess up their lines. Juvenile, yes. But also quite funny.

    Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (4)



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