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
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
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
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.
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
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.