Silver Screen Standards: My Man Godfrey (1936)
I’m a big fan of screwball comedy, so of course, I enjoy the wacky antics of Gregory La Cava’s 1936 classic, My Man Godfrey, which stars William Powell and Carole Lombard as an unlikely couple brought together by a scavenger hunt and the societal upheaval of the Great Depression. This sparkling romp features one of the nuttiest families you’ll find in classic cinema, with Lombard leading the charge as Irene, a dizzy daughter of the spoiled, spendthrift Bullock family, but there’s a far more serious undertone to the story than its silly surface might suggest. While watching My Man Godfrey again recently, I was struck by the way the screwball elements sweeten a story that’s really about socio-economic inequality, selfishness, and the ways in which the idle rich could transform society for everyone’s benefit if they’d just wake up to the idea that it might be their responsibility to share the wealth.
The wacky comedy of the movie lures us in and keeps us laughing, thanks to the iconic performances of Powell and Lombard and an impressive supporting cast. The Bullock family is headed by Eugene Pallette as patriarch Alexander, the only member who seems to recognize the precipice of self-destruction on which they teeter. Pallette plays gruff father figures in quite a few top-notch comedies, including The Lady Eve (1941) and Heaven Can Wait (1943), so he’s in his element here, although his protests rarely have much effect on the rest of the clan. Alice Brady plays his wife, Angelica, whose mind is so scattershot that listening to her talk is like watching a rubber ball ricochet around a room. Brady, a veteran of the stage and silent film era, goes for broke with the performance, which earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Her partner in comedy throughout the film is Mischa Auer as Angelica’s “protégé,” Carlo, really just a moocher with a healthy appetite for the Bullock’s food and a desire to avoid any actual labor to justify his existence. Auer also picked up an Oscar nomination, thanks mainly to the scenes where he and Brady tag team with their fast-paced, madcap antics. The least nutty but most pernicious of the lot is Gail Patrick as Irene’s sister Cornelia, who spends much of the picture trying to get Godfrey fired, partly to spite the smitten Irene, partly because Godfrey rebukes her, and partly because she just enjoys stirring up trouble. Taken together, the Bullocks are such a handful that we understand why Molly (Jean Dixon), their shrewd, experienced maid, expects Godfrey to make a speedy exit.
Godfrey, however, has a more serious turn of mind and plans that go far beyond a butler’s paycheck in return for his labors. Taken up by Irene as a “forgotten man” for the wealthy revelers’ scavenger hunt, he’s really a Harvard graduate and scion of a lofty Boston family whose life fell apart after his marriage ended in disaster. Having seen the misery and resilience of the jobless men living at the dump, Godfrey has experienced an epiphany. He’s out to shake things up and make a difference, and that journey is really the heart of the story, even if it’s told in and around the hilarious comedic scenes. Godfrey knows that he was once as naïve and shallow as the Bullocks are now, a point he makes clear to Cornelia, but he has seen up close how the other half lives and realizes that the men society has forgotten have a lot to teach the upper classes about dignity, resilience, and the value of life. Godfrey takes his butler job seriously and strives to do justice to it because he knows that it’s not beneath him to work hard, but he also knows that his privileged background makes him both able and obligated to give the forgotten men of the dump the same opportunity to earn a living.
He’s rightfully incensed by the scavenger hunt that equates a suffering human being with a goat or a bowl of goldfish, but he’s not so much angry on his own behalf as is he for the other men he has gotten to know and respect. A lot of Godfrey’s evolution as a character takes place before the story begins, so that we only see the third act, as it were, of his development; he’s already riding the redemptive arc from the nadir of being a suicidal wreck ready to throw himself into the river. That decision feels intentional within the framework of the film, given that this is a story originally being told to people who are actually living through the Great Depression. Godfrey functions as a beacon of hope and a catalyst for change. “Prosperity,” as Godfrey tells his friend, Mike, “is just around the corner,” and Godfrey himself is its agent.
In another kind of movie, Godfrey’s personal growth and business success would be reward enough for his enlightenment, but since this is a screwball comedy he also has to be rewarded – or punished, depending on how you feel – with the disruptive, chaotic life force that a screwball heroine embodies. Life with Irene will never be dull, although it might make rational conversation hard to come by, but Irene also brings an unshakable devotion that was tragically missing in Godfrey’s previous marriage. Irene loves him when she thinks he’s a homeless nobody, she loves him when she thinks he’s a butler, and she loves him when she finds him running a prosperous nightclub. Unaware of the revolution in his circumstances, Irene even brings firewood and food with her to the former site of the dump when she runs away from home to be with him. She might not be logical or wise, but she is faithful, generous, and determined to overcome any obstacle. There’s a lot to love in a personality like that, especially during the Depression, when loyalty, generosity, and determination were needed even more to get through troubled times.
My Man Godfrey is a brilliant comedy, but I appreciate how much more there is to it. It’s social commentary and call to action made palatable by rapid patter and bright laughter. For a similar take on the same themes, pair it with Sullivan’s Travels (1941), or move into full-strength Depression drama with The Grapes of Wrath (1940). My Man Godfrey earned six Oscar nominations, including acting nods for Powell, Lombard, Brady, and Auer, as well as Best Director and Screenplay, but it went home empty-handed in a year of strong contenders.
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.