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My Man Godfrey
Directed by George La Cava with William Powell, Carole Lombard, Eugene Pallette, Alan Mowbray, Mischa Auer, Gail Patrick, Alice Brady and Franklin Panghorn, 93 minutes, black and white, 1936

My Man Godfrey DVD cover

DVD cover

By Carter B. Horsley

"My Man Godfrey" is the best of several wonderful "screwball" film comedies of the 1930s that mocked the rich.

"Bringing Up Baby" with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn was a light-hearted romp with leopards in Connecticut. "The Palm Beach Story" with Joel McCrea, Claudette Colbert and Rudy Vallee was a delightful yarn about trains, hunters, yachtsmen and divorce. "Sullivan's Travels" with Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake was a charming tale of a movie director's thirst for reality.

As mirthful as these were, "My Man Godfrey" goes them better in not only in hilarity and in Depression-era morality.

Furthermore, its leading stars, William Powell and Carole Lombard, give incomparable and very memorable performances, which, improbably, have nothing to do with the fact that in real life they were married from 1931 to 1933. Lombard eventually married Clark Gable but died in a plane crash a few years after this movie was made.

As Godfrey, Powell makes "debonair" a good word and is the epitome of elegance and good humor.

Lombard is the ultimate daffy, as opposed to dumb, or even dizzy, blonde, Irene Bullock. With her medium-cut blonde hair and ravishing looks, she predates the beauty of Grace Kelly by almost two decades without an affected accent and with genuine and passionate liveliness and drive.

It's not so much that there is a special "chemistry" between Powell and Lombard; this is not your typical romance. Indeed, it makes merry of Powell's rather fatherly affection for Lombard that seems far removed from lust. For her part, Lombard envisions Powell as a noble, chivalrous knight. Their feelings might otherwise be normal and not too exciting were it not for the surrounding tumult created by a wacky ensemble of characters.

Eugene Pallette, a roly-poly man with a deeply rich foghorn voice, plays Lombard's father, Alexander Bullock, as an exhausted and exasperated businessman who happens to have a family that is little aware of his travails of trying to keep them in style.

Alice Brady plays his wife, Angelica Bullock, who panders to her protegé, a composer with a voracious appetite named Carlo, who is played with oblivious abandon by Mischa Auer.

Irene Bullock's sister, Cornelia, is played by statuesque, no-nonsense brunette Gail Patrick, whose cold composure is in sharp contrast to the rest of her family.

The movie starts at a society ball where the guests are sent out on a scavenger hunt and the Bullock sisters decide to try to find the "forgotten man." They go to a hobo/homeless camp near the river and the Queensborough Bridge and find Godfrey, who actually comes from a well-to-do Boston family and attended Harvard but has joined the homeless because he is depressed over a broken love affair. Cornelia tries to snare him as her "catch" but her snooty attitude loses to Irene's humane curiosity and Irene brings him back to the ball where she winds the top prize and decides to offer him a job as their family's butler.

Godfrey quickly becomes the impeccable, nay, perfect butler, anticipatory of and unfazed by almost every whim, without a trace of class resentment or jealousy. Irene's enchantment with him is only enhanced by his imperturbable and unimpeachable demeanor. He is too good to be true, especially for a young woman who sweeps herself off her feet with her pure, slaphappy enthusiasms.

Godfrey could conceivably have been played by Edward Everett Horton, or Cary Grant, but Horton's roles usually made him appear to be rather shallow and silly, and while Grant enjoying being a buffoon and was great for his long, slow double-takes had not yet attained the gravitas of his later years.

Powell is worldly and wry, suave and sophisticated, but does not step out of his place as a butler. In this role, it would be hard to imagine him telling Lombard, "Frankly, I don't give a damn." He is bemused but not beguiled.

William Powell and Carole Lombard

William Powell and Carol Lombard

The movie pokes a great deal of derision at the vapidness of the upper classes and emphasizes the dignity of the downtrodden - an appropriate response to the Depression. It does so, however, without too much politicizing or theorizing. It confronts and conquers evil - in the curvaceous form of Gail Patrick - and Powell does more than just the right thing. He not only turns his cheek, but becomes the family's patronly godfather.

Not only does he bail the family out of financial trouble, he creates a glamorous waterfront restaurant manned by his former colleagues in the homeless camp.

Living rightly rather than well is the best thing.

The movie's pace and dialogue are superb. The movie was nominated for six Oscars although it did not win any. Powell and Lombard were nominated for best actor and actress. Auer and Brady were nominated for best supporting actor and actress. La Cava was nominated for best director and Eric Hatch and Morris Ryskind were nominated for best screenplay. Lombard should have won and Pallette should have been nominated for best supporting actor. Pallette, in fact, might well have played the lead role.

The movie manages to be unabashedly giddy without being frivolous and delivers its message of decency without ceremony.


Click here to order the Criterion Collection DVD from Amazon.com for 10 percent off its $35.99 list price

This film is ranked 49th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

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