My Man Godfrey

US (1936) Dir. Gregory La Cava

Whatever it is money can buy, one thing it can’t buy you class, which explains why those who have wealth are inherently entitled and assume a misguided sense of superiority over the rest of us. Who needs a silver spoon when they are born when integrity is far more preferable?

One night in New York, the social elite are taking part in a charity scavenger hunt held at the Waldorf-Ritz Hotel. One of the participants, Cornelia Bullock (Gail Patrick) arrives at a shantytown for hobos by the East River where she approaches one of the denizens, Godfrey (William Powell) and offers him $5 to be an item on her list – a forgotten man. Insulted by the offer, Godfrey rejects Cornelia, but is taken with her younger sister Irene (Carole Lombard), and agrees to help her beat Cornelia.

By way of a reward, Irene offers Godfrey the job of butler to the Bullock family, since the last quit. After moving in with Irene, Cornelia, their mother Angelica (Alice Brady) and father Alexander (Eugene Pallette), Godfrey can see why there is such a turnaround of staff. Whilst Cornelia does everything to make Godfrey’s life hell, Irene has fallen in love with him, but Godfrey wants to respect the boundaries of their roles.

Made during the Great Depression, My Man Godfrey is a bold satire on the attitudes of the haves towards the have nots dressed up as a screwball comedy. Based on the novel 1101 Park Avenue by Eric S. Hatch, the snappy dialogue and barbed exchanges between the cast on all sides sets the template for every butler vs. privileged family dynamic in comedy that followed. I wouldn’t be surprised if Geoffrey from The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air wasn’t directly influenced by Godfrey.

For film audiences of the day, the real draw was seeing William Powell and Carole Lombard on screen together for the first time, made an even bigger sensation by the fact they had been divorced for three years at this point. Despite this, they maintained a civil relationship and whatever real life spark they had, they aged to retain some of it for this film, although some may find the clash of wills between Godfrey and Cornelia the more entertaining pairing.

Godfrey is one of many down on his luck bums based near the East River in New York, but these aren’t your average workshy bums – they are all men who once flew as high as The Bullocks, but due to the Great Depression and bad business scenarios, ended up at rock bottom. It would appear the river is a good place for the final sleep but the hobo community has a way of pulling together and helping some of them at least keep their dignity.

The scene at the hotel is chaotic and noisy, one of the most raucous five ten minutes in 1930s cinema as the rich clamour to get their items registered with the competition clerks. People shouting over each other, pushing and shoving like pigs at a trough, it is hard to imagine this is the alleged upper class of New York, something Godfrey observes and avers after helping Irene claim her prize. The obligatory “How can I repay you?” trope is how Godfrey becomes the Bullock’s butler.

It is made abundantly clear early on the Bullock’s are a family of big personalities, not all of them endearing. Patriarch Alexander is the put upon and ignored meal ticket for his kooky wife, she of the hilariously incomprehensible non-sequitur and her vapid protégé Carlo (Mischa Auer), heart of stone Cornelia, and capricious Irene. The only voice of reason, is housekeeper Molly (Jean Dixon), so used to the revolving door of butlers she has Godfrey’s hat and coat ready even before he starts work.

Hilarity ensues when Godfrey has to rebuff Irene’s advances and she goes into wounded swan overdrive, throwing a party to take her mind off him, among the attendees is Tommy Gray (Alan Mowbray), a family friend who also knows Godfrey. As I said earlier, Godfrey is not your average bum – quite obvious as he has the charm, wit, and familiarity with how the rich operate, so what is his game?

As it happens there is no game per se, at least not from the start, but people at their lowest ebb will always need a hand to get up again, and this is Godfrey’s. It doesn’t matter this is ultimately a feel good film with a well-meaning but on the nose message for the period, the journey is an amusing one that savagely deconstructs the pomposity and frippery of the more money than sense crowd and hangs them out to dry.

Scripted by Morrie Ryskind, the situations are not ridiculous, that is left to the Bullock family and their decadent stupidity. The dialogue is full of bristling one-liners, scathing retorts, and bon mots whilst Angelica throws out the wildest responses that have nothing to do with the subject, as if she is from planet mental! Alice Brady is wonderful in this role, working nicely in tandem with a sympathetic and exasperated Eugene Pallette as Alexander, who has a fantastic reply when it is suggested Carlo is his son!

Carole Lombard and William Powell may have long split up in real life but the chemistry between them is still magical. Lombard hams it up as Irene, especially during her moody patch after being rejected by Godfrey; it’s almost surreal in tone and style but somehow congruent within the film’s satirical energy. Powell carries himself with composure and restraint even in the face of Cornelia’s attempts to wear him down, creating another fun couple with the icy Gail Patrick.

Remade in 1957 with David Niven, the central themes of My Man Godfrey may not have been topically relevant then, rather still socially relevant, which is why this overlooked original version works on many levels, and remains fresh, sharply observed, and very funny to this day.  

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