My Man Godfrey (1936)

Directed by Gregory La Cava

Everyone has their favourite movie and I have mine – My Man Godfrey. I love screwball comedy, I love Carole Lombard and I love this movie, perhaps because both, the genre and the star, are at the top of their form.

And let’s not forget the pitch perfect William Powell as Godfrey.

From what I gather, the very term “screwball comedy” comes from a performance by Carole Lombard, though there seems to be some confusion about whether it was a reference to her in Godfrey or Nothing Sacred. But someone, at one time, referred to a performance by her as “screwball” and the term stuck.

My Man Godfrey is a template for this kind of comedy.

William Powell as Godfrey congratulates Irene (Carole Lombard) on winning the scavenger hunt.

Anything you could ever want to know about screwball is in this movie, beginning with Lombard’s performance as Irene Bullock, the quintessential ditzy, rich young woman, the heart and soul of this type of film.

But perhaps the thing that puts Godfrey a cut above other movies is that they have not only constructed the perfect screwball comedy, they go a little beyond it with a compelling, if frenetic, romance and even social commentary.

The beautiful and wealthy, dressed in tuxedos and gowns, all a bit “spiffed” (as Jimmy Stewart refers to it in Harvey), are having a scavenger hunt.

The crowning achievement in the hunt is to return with a “lost man,” someone who is out-of-work and homeless due to the Depression (presumably).

One of the hunt’s parties, led by Irene’s sister Cornelia (Gail Patrick), comes across Godfrey.

William Powell as Godfrey, a recently penniless man, meets the idle rich.

Unfortunately, Godfrey doesn’t receive her with the gratitude she expects (he’s offered $5 to come back with them).

Rather, Godfrey is offended and angry at how callous and frivolous they are.

Then Irene comes along. She’s thrilled at her sister’s treatment and somewhat apologetic for how Godfrey has been treated. Godfrey sees Irene hopeless (not the sharpest knife in the drawer) but more or less harmless.

He sees how anxious she is to beat her sister in the hunt due to their sibling rivalry and decides, why not?

He’ll go with Irene and see just how frivolous and vain these rich people are.

He goes with Irene, she wins the hunt, Godfrey gets to express his opinion of what kind of people the wealthy are and then … Then, Irene gets the idea of hiring Godfrey as the family butler. And he accepts!

From here on in it’s Godfrey, the one sane person in the film, and the wealthy, self-indulgent and screwy Bullock family.

In his new role as butler, Godfrey (Powell) serves his employer,Irene (Lombard).

In his new role as butler, Godfrey (Powell) serves his employer,Irene (Lombard).

The movie excels with an extraordinary cast providing marvellous performances, including Eugene Pallette as the financially beset, ineffective patriarch of the house.

The house is like an insane asylum. But Godfrey’s presence has a calming influence, to a small degree, as he is the one voice of reason and understanding. With Godfrey around, everyone begins to become more grounded and, frankly, more human. They begin to lose their self-absorption and see the world, and people around them.

But it isn’t only Godfrey who as an effect on others, and it isn’t only the family that is affected.

Lombard’s Irene has an effect on Godfrey, seducing him with her madcap antics and way of seeing the world. Reason alone isn’t exciting.

Irene with her disagreeable sister. (Carol Lombard, William Powell and Gail Patrick.)

Irene with her disagreeable sister. (Carol Lombard, William Powell and Gail Patrick.)

Irene’s craziness is also vitality, life’s substance. Godfrey slowly falls in love.

All of this happens with a chaos of fast-paced dialogue and quick moving action. It’s a frenetic world Godfrey has entered, a screwball world. And in a sense, he is a fish out of water here.

The pairing of Lombard and Powell is absolutely perfect. His droll, hang-dog look of seriousness against her constantly changing expressions of wild excitement and abject sorrow make a great contrast.

When I think of this movie being almost 70 years old, I am amazed. It still does everything you could possibly want a film to do.

It’s funny, exciting and moving, and it does all this while remaining essentially simple.

If ever a film warranted the term classic, it’s My Man Godfrey. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen it. And no matter how many times I do, I always find it rewarding.

My favourite movie.

On his day off, Godfrey returns home a tad tipsy, to the chagrin of Irene and Molly (Jean Dixon).

DVD note:

There are several DVD versions available of My Man Godfrey. I have the one available from the Criterion Collection – a bit more expensive, yes, but for me well worth it.

This has a “new digital transfer, with restored image and sound,” along with bonus material that includes audio commentary by film historian Bob Gilpin, “rare” outtakes, the complete 1938 broadcast of the Lux Radio Theater adaptation with Powell and Lombard, plus other features.

You can get the movie on less expensive discs. However, not having seen them, I can’t comment on their quality.

4 stars out of 4.
(Originally posted 2005.)


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