MY MAN GODFREY (1936)
A scatterbrained socialite hires a vagrant as a family butler... but there's more to Godfrey than meets the eye...
It was soon-to-be President Franklin D. Roosevelt who coined the “forgotten man” euphemism in a radio address he gave in 1932: “These unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensable units of economic power for plans … that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” He was, of course, speaking of the Great Depression; an economic crash without precedent, when the unemployed working class were becoming destitute in their millions.
This speech was, at least in part, the inspiration for Eric Hatch to begin writing his novel 1101 Park Avenue. The story tells the tale of a highly successful man who finds himself out of luck, out of love, and out of business in 1930s America. He’s literally ‘down in the dumps’, where he lives among a growing community of derelicts who scavenge city trash piles to meet their most basic of needs. The story’s inciting incident is his chance meeting with two sisters from a high society family taking part in a ‘scavenger hunt’ game. Among the ‘items’ they need to seek and bring back with them is a ‘forgotten man’.
Before Hatch’s novel, which combined elements of biting social satire with screwball comedy, could be published, he was partnered with Morrie Ryskind to work his story into a screenplay for Gregory La Cava. Ryskind already had a hand in writing three films for the Marx Brothers, and La Cava had made 27 features, mainly comedies. His friend and occasional collaborator, W.C Fields, called him the “best comedy mind in Hollywood.” La Cava started out drawing satirical cartoons for newspapers and cut his directorial teeth as one of the pioneering animators on around 140 animated shorts for the International Film Service, the animation studio set-up by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. And if that name seems familiar, Hearst was the inspiration for Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941).
When accosted by the two rival Bullock sisters, Cornelia (Gail Patrick) and Irene (Carole Lombard), our ‘forgotten man’, Godfrey (William Powell), takes affront at Cornelia’s dismissive manner but favours her more sympathetic younger sister. He agrees to accompany Irene and be presented to the scavenger hunt judging panel, thus ensuring a win for her team.
When asked to make a speech, for the vicarious amusement of the posh crowd, he’s surprisingly eloquent and damningly critical of their frivolous disregard for what is going on around them. He says his only motivation to coming along was to aid the young lady and because he was curious to see “how a bunch empty-headed nitwits conducted themselves.” His curiosity satisfied, he says it’ll be a pleasure to re-join “a society of really important people.” His sentiments are above the heads of all the squiffy buffoons present, but strike a chord with the well-meaning Irene who, right then and there, offers him a job as their family butler and so the scene is set for some class-collision hilarity. With a twist, of course.
William Powell was perfect in the lead as Godfrey. For the first 15-minutes, as the ‘forgotten man’, he looks and sounds uncannily like Patrick McGoohan’s Number 6 at his most indomitable, with a similar knowing smirk that verges on a sneer. Then, when he takes on the butler mantle, he’s so suave and charming one thinks that the part was written for David Niven, who in fact does take on the same role 21 years later, in Henry Koster’s 1957 remake! Powell’s performance is surprisingly subtle and nuanced and earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor—definitely deserved, if only for the drunk act, which remains an effective piece of physical comedy whilst avoiding any hint of the era’s penchant for slapstick. I never realised how much of an influence Powell had on comedy and several of Godfrey’s mannerisms can be seen echoing down the decades through the performances of many others.
Carole Lombard was already known for her comedy romance roles, to which she brought her offbeat style and energy and Irene Bullock became the definitive example. Her performance is typically warm and likeable, with a fine balance between headstrong and vulnerable that’s very appealing—a little like Barbara Stanwick’s Sugarpuss O’Shea in Ball of Fire (1941), albeit with a more generous dose of ‘ditzy’. This was a career highpoint for Lombard who was also nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. It contributed to her becoming the most popular, and highest paid, actress in late-1930s Hollywood. In 1999, the American Film Institute listed her among the top 25 female legends of Hollywood.
Gail Patrick is very good in the supporting role of her sister, Cornelia, and capitalised on the reputation she had already earned from playing cold and calculating femme fatales. For a good portion of the film, she’s the villain of the piece: a spoilt brat who can’t forgive Godfrey for his rebuttal at their initial encounter at the city dump. She’s petty and scheming and, in a key plot point involving a pearl necklace, tries to frame the butler for theft. But her character doesn’t remain such a caricature for long and soon we see chinks in the veneer as she softens and eventually has the biggest turn-around of all…
Alice Brady (who plays the family’s scatty matriarch) was a star of the silent age, had already appeared in more than 60 movies, and would make a dozen more movies after My Man Godfrey. Her part made her one of the first actresses to be nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, and Mischa Auer, who (over)plays her pretentious protégé, was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor—both new categories introduced at the 9th Academy Awards in 1937. My Man Godfrey is distinguished by being the first movie to be nominated in all four acting categories. Eric Hatch and Morrie Ryskind shared the nomination for Best Screenplay and La Cava was nominated for Best Director. But of its six nominations, how many Oscars did the film take home? A grand total of… zero. Most notably, the Best Director statuette instead went to Frank Capra for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), another classic rom-com.
Along with Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) starring Clarke Gable and Claudette Colbert, and The Awful Truth (1937) with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, My Man Godfrey laid out a fresh formula for screwball romantic comedies that’s since become familiar. So much so that the US Library of Congress has ordered all three to be restored and preserved as part of the National Film Registry.
Considering it’s entirely dialogue-driven, there’s never a dull moment. It has a smooth and fast-paced screenplay but retains a sense of spontaneity. The script may well have been credited to Hatch and Ryskind, but La Cava was known to continually re-work his scripts during filming. By all accounts, it was shot off-the-cuff, with the script treated simply as a ‘serving suggestion’. La Cava carefully planned each scene with an opening and closing point, then stepped back and let the actors choose how they got from one to the other. In his analysis, Garry Giddens counts ten such sections, which made for a controlled plot whilst allowing plenty of room for improvisation.
For My Man Godfrey, La Cava relied on a very strong cast and made sure that they all got to know each other and felt comfortable before the cameras rolled—a process that sometimes took weeks. The result is a naturalistic, easy intimacy among the players which is rare for the era. For the 1930s, this was a surprisingly modern approach. It’s even considered experimental and ground-breaking when directors like Lars Von Trier or David Lynch try the same thing nowadays…
It’s very much a comedy of its time—made during the Depression about the Depression. Yet its human appeal keeps it relevant even as the period piece it has now become. It’s an urbane comedy that, whilst lampooning the upper class for sure, remains sympathetic. Though it never gets preachy and acknowledges how important escapist entertainment can be in times of hardship, it also has a message: for richer or poorer, we’re all people in this together and should learn to get over those artificial barriers such as the class system. Incredibly, that’s a message that bears repeating today, 82 years later!
In this respect, it will certainly appeal to fans of P.G Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories, or those who would love the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies if it wasn’t for all that dancing, as well as anyone who enjoys a top-hole classic screwball comedy… but I don’t think its appeal is limited to nostalgia. As we hurtle headlong into our own post-Brexit Depression, I could see it appealing to a wider audience and wouldn’t be surprised if this new Blu-ray restoration from Criterion finds a cult following among the youth…
director: Gregory La Cava.
writers: Eric Hatch & Morrie Ryskind (based on the novel ‘1101 Park Avenue’ by Eric Hatch).
starring: William Powell, Carole Lombard, Alice Brady, Gail Patrick, Eugene Pallette, Jean Dixon & Alan Mowbray.