Thursday, October 6, 2011

My Man Godfrey - 1936

“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.

The film, directed by Gregory La Cava, begins famously with those credits stylized as neon signs over a cityscape, panning slowly until we pass the glitter and end up at the town dump. A “Hooverville” exists here. As frothy as the café society nightlife is depicted in this movie, the dump set is remarkably gritty and realistic. And big. A lot of work on the detail of that dump set.

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.

The Forgotten Man of the piece is William Powell. Powell is excellent here, a man intelligence and dignity, whose bitterness at living among the ash heaps in the dump is barely contained. Yet there is a careful reserve about him, a latent philosopher, and a wonderful unshaven virility that attracts the audience, and soon, Carole Lombard. He was never more sexy than in this movie.

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.

At the party he sees the wealthy class in an orgy of junk collecting to win a prize.  He finds himself put on display, a little like a slave at a slave market when Franklin Pangborn strokes his cheek to see if the whiskers are real. Powell calls them “empty-headed nitwits” and Carole’s simple conscience, when it exists, realizes he has been humiliated. She feels guilty, and decides to bring him to her parents’ mansion to give him a job as their butler.

Of such simple stuff is excellent screwball comedy made.

Alice Brady, no sensible earth mother as we last saw her in “In Old Chicago” here, plays a society woman ten times ditzier than Carole Lombard.

Mischa Auer, in the “mad Russian” role he patented, plays a social parasite Alice Brady takes into their home as her protégé. He is a musician when he is not eating, or doing gorilla impersonations.

Eugene Pallette, he of the lordly, imposing girth and the foghorn vocal chords, plays the husband and father, and keeper of the keys to this nuthouse. The 1930s longsuffering rich guy, out of step in a world undisciplined and nutty. He is left paying the check.

Jean Dixon, longsuffering herself, plays their maid with that typical 1930s wisecracking sensibility that keeps us all levelheaded. I love the scene where she lovingly sews a button on Powell’s jacket, and Lombard strokes the sleeve. “It’s his, isn’t it?” Powell is unaware of the harem he has made of the household females.

Our beloved 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?”

And the Art Deco nightclub they build over the old landfill is called The Dump.

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.

Powell has chemistry with everybody in this movie, including the nasty Gail Patrick, and even poor Jean Dixon is so lovesick for him by the end of the movie, she and Lombard sob in each other arms over his leaving.

But it is Gail Patrick’s character I find more interesting. For all her meanness, the spark of attraction she feels for Powell is intriguing. Her encounters with him in the drawing room, and at the bar where she intrudes upon his meeting with a friend from the old days are snide but sexy jousts. She knows he has a secret and wants to ferret it out, ostensibly to humiliate him, to take revenge for his backing her onto her bum in the ash pile at the beginning of the 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.

Miss Patrick’s steel butterfly persona melts under the realization that Powell is their savior. Gratitude, contrition, and humility wash over her, and that is what really saves her as a human being. We wonder what kind of person she will turn out to be now that she has undergone a conversion. With Lombard’s character, we may assume both her unflappable charm and her childish tantrums will continue without change.

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.

That infectious, almost maniacal giggle bursts forth from her at the very end of the movie when Powell is ten seconds away from saying “I do”. Lombard makes this childish ditz lovable, so it is no wonder she gets away with it. And unlike Gail Patrick, who leads men around on a leash, Lombard needs someone to look after her. Naughty girl that she is.

Don't forget to check out the rest of the great blogs participating in the Carole Lombard blogathon.


Along These Lines ... said...

Great post. This is one film I can watch over and over, and never get sick of (Another is "The Man Who Came to Dinner" with Monty Woolley)

VP81955 said...

Wonderful job on "Godfrey." You truly captured the feel for this film, and I'm delighted you've made it part of "Carole-tennial(+3)!"

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you both, and thanks to Vincent for hosting this fun blogathon.

The Lady Eve said...

Jacqueline - This is a fantastic tribute to one of the greatest of all screwballs. Wonderful insight beautifully conveyed.

I'd never considered this, but you make a great point that had anyone but Lombard played the role of Irene, it might have been a better idea that Godfrey end up with Cornelia.

FlickChick said...

Great post - very nice in depth look at a comedy that has something to say.

LucieWickfield said...

Delightful post! I, also, would've loved to see Cornelia's character resolve, and perhaps marry a Powell clone.

P.S. How I wish I could've thought up "steel butterfly" to describe Gail Patrick. Rats.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, all. I see others are also intrigued about the character of Cornelia. Too bad they couldn't come up with a sequel for Gail Patrick.

VP81955 said...

Universal initially envisioned Constance Bennett as Irene, and while I like Connie as an actress (check out her two "Topper" films, where she plays a funny, sexy ghost), I doubt she could have made the character anywhere as sympathetic. However, Powell -- aware of Bennett's flightiness on the set -- insisted ex-wife Lombard (who he'd remained on good terms with following their divorce) get the past.

Two years later, Connie got a chance to play a daughter in a house full of eccentrics in Hal Roach's "Merrily We Live." Solid entertainment, but hardly a "Godfrey."

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks for this great background, I was unaware of Constance Bennett's involvement. I agree that Lombard brought a warmth that the character really needs.

Page said...

I really enjoyed your take on Godfrey! (It seems it's a favorite that's stood the test of time for most of us)

I also agree that Powell was better suited for Patrick's character. But maybe I'm no fan of 'ditzy' women. Ha Ha

I always enjoy your well thought out reviews and this one didn't disappoint. Enjoying the Carole-tennial so far.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Page. I enjoyed your post very much, so many photos I'd never seen.

Caftan Woman said...

When my daughter was younger (in her teens) her first encounter with Godfrey was the remake with David Niven and June Allyson, and she liked it. Later I had the opportunity to share the Powell/Lombard original and she loved it. It was, she said, the story of the forgotten man that made it special. You are so right about the era being important to the genre and the genre being important to help us understand the era.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Your daughter is very perceptive. She must get it from you.

DorianTB said...

Jacqueline, I adored your thoughtful, detailed post about MY MAN GODFREY! It's one of those films I keep stumbling across on TV right smack in the middle, and I keep enjoying it and meaning to sit the heck down and watch the whole thing next time it's on TCM or something, yet somehow I never get to see it from start to finish. I'm eager to rectify that sooner rather than later, especially since I adore William Powell even more than the luminous Carole Lombard. The Forgotten Man aspect had always touched me; no doubt it'll be even more impressive when I finally get to see it from start to finish! Thanks for lighting a fire under me, Jacqueline! :-)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you so much, Dorian. There are quite a few movies I've seen only bits and pieces of, too. Frustrating. I hope you get to see this one, soon.

Yvette said...

Loved this review, Jacqueline. You always do such a wonderful job - the reviewer's reviewer. :)

I haven't seen MY MAN GODFREY in such a long time. But I do remember loving William Powell in it myself.

He fits an ultimate concept of mine: The competent man. I think a man's competence at any given task is a very attractive and a very comforting thing.

I used this idea to explain the attraction that Jack Reacher (Lee Child's anti-hero) has for women - besides the obvious.

It's this same idea, I think, that makes Powell so attractive in this film.(Besides the obvious.) Competence.

Reacher and Godfrey, mentioned together in one post. Now there's a strange thought. :)

P.S. I love Eugene Pallette.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you so much, Yvette. Your opinion means a great deal to me.

I know what you mean by competence being so attractive in the male of the species. I think this came up in the comments of another post when someone mentioned that men in the classic films behaved like grown ups and not boys.

Personally, I think a sense of responsibility is the sexiest thing there is. But the word "competence" is never stamped on those candy valentine hearts.

Related Products