My Man Godfrey (1936)
And we’re back with another Film Class Wednesday review. I believed, for quite a while, that I’d previously reviewed My Man Godfrey; I mean, it’s a beloved classic and I’ve watched it several times. Looks like I was wrong, and now I get to review it for you fine people! My Man Godfrey is screwball comedy at its finest (which I might have said in my review of It Happened One Night, but are used as examples of the genre) despite its inability to truly sell the horrors of the Depression to a mainstream audience.
Socialite Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) stumbles upon bum Godfrey (William Powell) in a trash heap during a scavenger hunt. Feeling sorry for him, Irene hires Godfrey as the Bullock family butler. Unfortunately, Godfrey steps into a world of intrigue and conflict, complicated by a secret he’s hiding from everyone.
I take umbrage with My Man Godfrey in one area, and I’ll get it out-of-the-way so I can discuss all the ways I enjoy this movie. Screwball comedies were meant to lighten the hearts of a downtrodden America by focusing on the lives of the daffy rich. It’s the prime reason screwballs died out so quickly because once we entered the war the diluted lives of the wealthy paled in comparison to what was really going on. The movie attempts to emphasize the severity of the Depression on people, and how the wealthy “just don’t get it.” Case in point, Irene and her sister, Cornelia (Gail Patrick) use Godfrey as the last puzzle piece of a charity scavenger hunt (and it’s safe to assume the charity money isn’t helping the poor men down at the trash heap). Godfrey’s presence as the urbane butler ends up reforming the Bullocks and pulling them out of their self-contained selfishness, but the secret about Godfrey’s past is a way of reasserting the status quo. It’s revealed that Godfrey is the prince of a wealthy family himself, whose broken free of the grind to live a life of freedom and poverty. It’s not okay to pair up Irene and Godfrey when he’s poor; it’s only once they’re “equals” in wealth that Godfrey is worthy of her. See, he was never truly poor! He was just faking it to prove a point. Something about that always left a sour taste in my mouth.
Okay, enough with the exploration of the lack of true social commentary in this movie. Oh, and I almost forgot the whole “turning the trash heap into a nightclub for wealthy people finale.” Really, Godfrey you think helping a few guys find jobs is going to really help the area. And take note the only homeless people we see are men! I’m really done. I complain about the societal influences of the movie, but the acting and script are pure screwball. The Bullocks are a group of angst-ridden nuts who constantly scheme and quibble in the most open manner; Mrs. Bullock (Alice Brady) lives in sin with her “protegé,” Carlo (Mischa Auer), and Cornelia is content to commit crimes like vandalism and framing Godfrey in order to remove him from the house. The characters are all insane enough to come off as rascally in a way so you appreciate them and truly feel they’ve changed by story’s end. Gail Patrick always played the cold bitch (for lack of a better term) in films like My Favorite Wife or Stage Door. As Cornelia, Patrick is the perfect ice queen but projects real remorse by the end.
The side characters are unimportant because this is Lombard and Powell’s vehicle, produced three years after their divorce. It’s easy to understand why they married (and possibly why the marriage failed) as these two anticipate each other’s moves. Powell perfects the urbane butler who understands the necessity of keeping his nose clean. He avoids trouble as much as possible and happens to work for a house where trouble is the word of the day! It’s also easy to figure out why everyone comes to love Godfrey. Powell plays the role so alluringly; he’s able to draw the best out of all he encounters. Carole Lombard works better, to my view, when her humor is subtle and tied into reality (ie her role in To Be Or Not To Be) but she is wonderful as the zany socialite of Godfrey’s dreams. She’s in the vein of Ginger Rogers where her flightiness and immaturity is fun without being infantile. Irene may be immature, but she’s self-aware. Her desire to overdramatize everything mines the script for the best one-liners, ones you’d never expect to sell.
My Man Godfrey is a jaunty romp between the have’s and the secretly have-more’s. It’s screwball 101, so if you haven’t taken it in already now is the time to do so.
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Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
I really must write my own blog post about MY MAN GODFREY, you’ve just reminded me! I freaking love this movie – my Mom bought it for me on VHS a while back when I was just getting into classic film and it’s one of the few movies I loved completely on first watch. Usually I’d have to watch a classic film at least a couple times before I decided whether I liked it or not.
It’s funny that, before reading your review, I never ever thought out the things you mentioned in the third paragraph — I always thought the nightclub was a good idea but now that I’ve read your opinion on the matter, I find myself agreeing with you! How did that nightclub-for-the-wealthy help those poor homeless men?? It didn’t. And yeah, where were the homeless women?
This was very insightful!
I’m selective about which classic films I truly love, as well. I think Dark Victory and The Song of Bernadette were two last year I immediately fell in love with. Haha, I always take flak for “overanalyzing” plot elements but they definitely lead to people questioning the feasibility of movie ideas.
I lovethis mo
I sure didn’t do that post right.
I love this movie and I wouldn’t quite be so hard about the things with which you have a problem. I think Godfrey must be more than he seems or he can’t do the things he wants to do. The way he saves the Bullock’s financially and morally are part of both of his experiences.
Your comment about only having men as homeless is probably more to keep if from the situation being too depressing. Note that all the men are rather upbeat in spite of their situation. Since it is a comedy I guess they don’t want to kill the mood.
Great performances all around. Mr. Bullock (Eugene Pallette) because someone has to be normal and deal on a “real” level with Godfrey. They understand each other and Pallette’s normalcy plays so well off of his crazy family.
I think some of it is about knocking down the rich and giving a little hope to those on hard times. As I don’t think the nightclub is for the rich as it is about getting some jobs for the men. Thankfully, Godfrey has the means to do it because that is what the guys really want.
And most of all it is flat out funny.
True, you’ve definitely given realistic expectations for my points and I understand that reasoning as much as my own. I definitely agree with the “too depressing” element. So much of this time period was bathed in sadness that screwball comedies were about providing hope and inspiration in some form.
While I know in my mind that messages–even if they’re unintentional–can be found throughout every film, I don’t always see them quite as clearly as you do. Your articles are helping me to raise my awareness level (and will hopefully, in turn, make me a better writer), so thank you! That said, I really enjoyed the movie.
Glad to hear I’m helping people watch a bit closer. My mom is the first to say she never noticed stuff until I started discussing movies. Now some of her favorite movies I’ve “ruined” by overanalzying lol.