This is another classic American film that I’m just now getting around to watching. My Man Godfrey came out in 1936, during the Great Depression. It’s a so-called screwball comedy – which is wacky in a specific way.
The film opens with a slow left-to-right pan, with the opening credits superimposed on a nocturnal Art Deco city skyline. As the skyline disappears the shot zooms in on a dump, where we see some homeless men chatting among themselves. Seconds after camera comes to rest on one called “Duke” two cars come up and two socialites get out, one with boyfriend in tow.
One of them (the one with the boyfriend, who is names Cornelia) asks Duke if he want to make a quick $5. She’s on a scavenger hunt and has to find a “forgotten man”. He fills the bill. He may be poor, but he’s got enough dignity to turn her down. She and her boyfriend leave and the other young woman (Irene) approaches he, with the same request. But her manner is different and, for whatever reason (the plot requires it), he assents to her request.
Before you know it he’s become the butler in the home where this woman lives with her sister (the first woman), mother, father, and a high-class moocher (the mother’s “protégé”). Godfrey–the man’s name–is so very good at being a butler that one suspects he’s got an interesting history. In time we learn that, yes he does, he from a wealthy Boston family and...well, does it really matter just how he ended up in a dump in New York City? The Bullock family is disorganized and dysfunctional and Godfrey does his best shape them up, with some success.
The film works its way to an utterly implausible happy ending, more or less, with Irene all set to marry Godfrey, who’s 10 or 15 years order than she is. Godfrey does a good job of hiding his attraction from Irene while the film does just as good a job of betraying it to us. He ends up as manager to a swanking nightclub called The Dump, which is on the site of the dump that opened the movie.
As for why this is a screwball comedy, it’s because a ditzy blond, Irene, manages to snare an uptight man, Godfrey. Irene was played by Carole Lombard and Godfrey way played William Powell. In real life they’d been married for a few years but had gotten divorced by the time this film was made.
What’s striking is that the film is set in high society at the height of the Depression. But of course it’s also quite aware of the poverty on which that (rather dysfunctional) high society rests.
None of this makes much sense, but it’s an excellent film.
A screwball comedy.
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- The late Norman Holland was a (psychoanalytic) literary critic by day: “As I see it, this screwball comedy asks, What is a man? And by its occasionally surreal style, it also asks, What is real? The answer is: what you don't throw away; what you value. This is a film about valuing.”
- Roger Ebert, four-star review, 2008: “A couple of reviewers on the Web complain that the plot is implausible. What are we going to do with these people? They've obviously never buttled a day in their lives. What you have to observe and admire is how gently the film offers its moments of genius.”
- James Bowman: “The earliest days of the Talkies coincided with the onset of the Great Depression, and during that era, especially during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, the problem of how to be rich — that is, how to live the good life as Americans had always conceived it — became politically problematical for the first time.”
- Kimberly Truhler, Cinema Style File–The Art (Deco) of Comedy in 1936's MY MAN GODFREY: “As chief designer, Banton would most often be responsible for the leading ladies alone. Thus, in Godfrey he created Carole's gowns and her many other looks. He was blissfully indulgent in styling her socialite character Irene. At one point, he has her waking up in a bedroom jacket made entirely of ostrich feathers.” (Has lots of stills from the film.)