“My Man Godfrey” (1936) pegs the era in such a precise way. It’s duality is its greatest charm --a light and airy foolishness above a message of grim reality that makes it a timeless foray into a specific Depression-era genre: the screwball comedy. Carole Lombard reigned as screwball’s quintessential high priestess. We celebrate the Carole Lombard blogathon today, sponsored by Carole & Company. Have a look for other participating blogs here.
Screwball comedy in the 1930s often doubled as social commentary, that was how it worked best. It threw darts, but lacked pretension. It called a spade a spade with honest and earthy directness, but without being cynical. There was still a luminescent idealism. It told its audiences of the day the way things were, and left an unmistakable footprint for future generations to vicariously experience the 1930s.
Carole Lombard is a ditzy Young Thing on the town. She is on a scavenger hunt, one of the fads of the 1930s, that is organized by the party she is attending at the Waldorf-Ritz. Her older sister, played by Gail Patrick, is also in the competition, and Miss Patrick reaches the dump first for the next item on their list. A “forgotten man”. This was the euphemism in the day for a hobo or bum, or street person. Forgotten man sounds almost politically correct, doesn’t it? President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used the term (though he did not invent it) in referring to the folks who needed relief, and the phrase took off.
She is first awed by him, and smitten, especially when he backs Gail Patrick into a pile of ashes. Gail is a haughty, arrogant rich brat who irritates Powell with the condescending offer of $5 to Powell if he will accompany her back to the Waldorf to be inspected by the prize committee as a genuine bum. Uh, forgotten man.
There is no love lost between the sisters. Carole’s delight at seeing her sister humiliated, as well as her more sensitive and shy request that Powell be her forgotten man, makes Mr. Powell allow her the privilege of capturing him.
Of such simple stuff is excellent screwball comedy made.
“In Old Chicago” here, plays a society woman ten times ditzier than Carole Lombard.
Grady Sutton (see this previous post), has a brief role as the bewildered fellow Carole Lombard takes as a fiancé for spite when William Powell exhibits no interest in her.
William Powell, it is disclosed to us, but not his employers, is not really a servant. He is from an upper class Boston family. He ran away after a failed romance, intending to kill himself. When he stumbled upon the destitute in the Hooverville, he instead learned a less about life and the grit and nobility of survival. He takes the butler’s job as part of his own self-rehabilitation -- part therapy and part penance, and he applies himself with diligence to his job. He is a very good butler.
We might remark that the rich people in this movie are child-like and foolish, and irresponsible and we may wonder if the audiences of the 1930s were disgusted or ridiculing of the upper class because of it. How could people like this be running the show? On the other hand, we have their neighbors in the lower class section of town, the Sycamore family of “You Can’t Take It With You” in their own self-imposed fantasy world of foolishness. Mischa Auer, you’ll remember, shows up as the perennial guest for dinner in that one, too.
I wonder if “Ochi Chornya” (pick your favorite spelling) or “Dark Eyes” could be considered a minor anthem of the 1930s? We hear it in so many movies of the day, including repeated bursts from music boxes in “The Shop Around the Corner” (1940) here.
Another musical reference we may note is Alice Brady’s musing that nobody knows the words to “The Star Spangled Banner”. It had become officially our national anthem only in 1931, five years before this movie was made.
Perhaps my most favorite topical reference from this movie, because it turns to be just as relevant today, is when Powell responds to his business partner’s question, “When do you start paying dividends?”
He replies, “Well, we’re giving food and shelter to 50 people in the winter and giving them employment in the summer. What do you want in the way of dividends?”
The lines are fast and furious, and funny, and subplots include Mr. Powell’s plan to rehabilitate the dump just as he has rehabilitated himself and get his homeless friends there jobs. Meanwhile, the evil sister, Gail Patrick, plots to have him arrested for stealing her pearl necklace, which she plants in his room.
It is refreshing, in an odd way, to see two sisters really dislike each other and be shown as truly incompatible. “Yah! Yah! Yah!” as Miss Lombard would shout. Her incorrigible sweetness mixed with a cloying immaturity is a tough balance to maintain, but Carole Lombard does it well and probably better than anyone else could. William Powell knew this, and so when this project came up, he pushed for Lombard to get the part. That they were divorced in real life clearly made no problems in their chemistry for this movie.
She bullies him, she threatens him, she insults him. She uses her womanly wiles against him. He is impervious, and, in a superior and classy way tells her off, and this drives her nuts and makes him more attractive to her. In the end, another subplot reveals that Powell, through his own private scheme to raise money, has also saved her father from bankruptcy and a possible jail sentence.
If we weren’t talking about the great Carole Lombard, I would say I preferred Patrick to end up with Powell at the end. But, it’s sweet, ditzy Carol that captures, truly this time, William Powell and leads him into wedlock before he knows what’s happening. In time she may end up being a carbon copy of her mother and Powell a copy of her longsuffering father.
Don't forget to check out the rest of the great blogs participating in the Carole Lombard blogathon.