My Man Godfrey (1936)
Release Date: September 17th, 1936 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Gregory La Cava Actors: William Powell, Carole Lombard, Alice Brady, Gail Patrick, Eugene Pallette, Jean Dixon, Mischa Auer
y Man Godfrey” is one of the quintessential screwball comedies of the ‘30s, helping to define the subgenre’s groundwork of scatterbrained, speedy, hysterically entertaining discourse, slapstick, and misbehaviors. The first film to be nominated for acting Oscars in all four categories, Gregory La Cava’s singular picture is still distinguished and uproarious today, even without sex, violence, suggestive themes, raunchy humor, or any other commonplace item of modern comedy. It relies solely on the hilarity of clever predicaments and corresponding dialogue, and the jocosity of the schemers and dimwits that sharply contrasts the suave, sophisticated leading man.
Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) and her sister Cornelia (Gail Patrick) are on a scavenger hunt, collecting random items to bring back to their rich and snobbish high society friends. On the list is the vague concept of a “forgotten man,” which seems to perfectly suit Godfrey (William Powell), a homeless man living on the outskirts of town, which the two stumble across during their revelry. Cornelia is especially rude, prompting Godfrey to refuse to play along, but Irene uses a gentler approach – and out of curiosity and the nature of sibling rivalry, he agrees to help her complete the game.
Although Irene wins, Godfrey is outraged at the absurdity and wastefulness of her socialite activities and her showy acquaintances and family. In compensation for his embarrassment and discomfort, she offers him a job as a butler. He accepts, immediately striving to be the best manservant possible – but it’s soon apparent that the entire assemblage of Bullocks is crazy and that the disdaining Cornelia is out to destroy him. Godfrey is not what he seems, however, and aims to teach the nutty family a thing or two about common decency, humbleness, and, perhaps, love.
The acting is flawless, lending to magnificently amusing chemistry between so many completely opposite personalities. Irene and Cornelia are constantly at each other’s throats and competitively vie for Godfrey’s attention; Cornelia aggressively plots to discourage and humiliate him, while Irene falls blindly and madly in love. Lombard’s quirky, hurried, and often-mindless ramblings are incredibly humorous and smartly play against Godfrey’s calm, debonair demeanor. Powell creates one of the most likeable characters of his career (penned by Morrie Ryskind and Eric Hatch), imparting consistent anticipation as he makes carefully calculated decisions to win each round against his conniving foe. Alice Brady, as the mother, is equally as harebrained as her cohorts and serves primarily for comedy relief. Her protégé Carlo (Mischa Auer) is undeniably more unconventional, as he truly has no place in the movie save for spontaneous outbursts of prissiness and nonsense. Carlo’s role doesn’t progress the story and serves no other purpose than to muster chuckles – though he admittedly succeeds rather frequently. Eugene Pallette, as the patriarch, plays the straight-laced man to the enormously off-kilter ensemble and yet still has his own comedic moments thrown in for good measure.
Rather than exploiting immaturity for laughs, “My Man Godfrey” uses a more timeless approach: the characters suffer from naivety more than anything else, and the enjoyment comes from watching Godfrey educate their thoughtlessness. This premise also serves as a stinging satire of upper class frivolities, intolerance, and selfishness. The film balances such socioeconomic condemnations with lighthearted silliness and a pathos-infused love story of an unconditional and mostly blind nature, all paced with a masterly sense of cinematic timing. It remains one of the very best screwball comedies of the era, as well as one of the greatest movies ever made.
– Mike Massie