My Man Godfrey (1936)

My Man Godfrey (1936), directed by Gregory La Cava.

First review:

One of the very best screwball comedies. William Powell and Carole Lombard, although divorced at this time, are still great friends and have superb chemistry and comic timing. Wonderful cast.

It has a Depression-era social consciousness background, but the changes are head-spinning. Godfrey is a Forgotten Man living at the city dump, picked up by some idle rich kids to display at one of their society games. This gives us a chance, along with Godfrey, to sneer at them.

On the other hand, they seem to be having a lot of fun. When he moves to the vast marble mansion we see the rich family are funny but also crazy, making them less contemptible and actually pitiable. Then Godfrey recovers his self-respect by being a good butler and the daughters of the house turn out to be simultaneously appealing and scary, which is always a problem. We discover he was once one of the suspect rich, now one of the noble poor.

He then turns the tables by making a fortune of his own, which would make him suspect again, but he is generous in his success. He moves back to the dump, turning it into a nightclub (that 1930s paradise) and employing the other bums, which again would make him suspect, but they all like him and the project is not making any money anyway.

In the final scene he loses the war of the sexes and it ends as all good screwball comedies and Jane Austen novels should.

All in 90 minutes.

Six Academy Award nominations, although not for Best Picture, and no wins. It was a tough decade.

Carole Lombard died at age 33 in a plane crash during WW2, selling war bonds.

Criterion DVD.

Second review:


All you need for a lunatic asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people.

This time I noticed Godfrey's journey. Once a spoiled rich kid himself, he has realized "there is no limit to how low a man can sink when he starts feeling sorry for myself." And: "the only difference between a derelict and a man is a job." While serving and observing the crazy rich family (Depression audiences loved a peek inside the mansion as lunatic asylum) he finds self-respect and humility and makes a triumphant, if warm-hearted and generous, comeback.

Audiences were used to William Powell as one of the most debonair men in pictures and it must have been a shock to see him unshaven and ragged in the shanty town. Once he gets back on his feet he handles every situation with wit and grace, just as we expect.

Gail Patrick owned the "wrong woman" character of that era. As the evil big sister it must have been tempting to ease up and get some sympathy from the audience, but no, she remains Cruella until almost the last moment. Patrick came to Hollywood to audition for the "Panther Woman" in Island of Lost Souls (1932). She didn't get it.

In his book Screwball, Ed Sikov has a nice section on the film. He loves the opening credits and the entire cast, praises the leads and their fine chemistry; William Powell and Carole Lombard were divorced by this time but still pals -- you can tell. He faults it for giving up on the strong social critique of the opening scenes. In the end Godfrey the recovered aristocrat saves the day. To me this is just part of the topsy-turvy charm of the screwball genre, always keeping us off balance and providing the unexpected. Movies aren't sociology lectures.

He also says the romance itself is incomprehensible: Lombard's character is so ditzy, how could Godfrey fall for her? There is something to that, but it's still an essential element of the genre: male rationality overcome by female frenzy. And love is, in fact, incomprehensible.

Criterion DVD. Grainy but pleasant to watch. I'd love a Blu-ray if the source could stand the improvement. The DVD has rare 1930s outtakes, mostly violations of the Third Commandment. Detailed, somewhat academic commentary track.

[Later: available on Blu-ray from Criterion].