My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava, 1936)

by Douglas Buck December 28, 2018 4 minutes (814 words) 16mm Cinémathèque québécoise, part of the Gregory La Cava rep series

Alexander Bullock: I’ve just been going over last month’s bills, and I find that you people have confused me with the Treasury Department.
Cornellia Bullock: Oh, don’t start that again, Dad.
Alexander Bullock: I don’t mind giving the government 60% of what I make. But I can’t do it when my family spends 50%!
Irene Bullock: Well, why should the government get more money than your own family?

Airheaded Park Avenue socialite (Carole Lombard), on a whim to get back at her spoiled brat sister Cornelius (Gail Patrick) hires a derelict Godfrey (the even-keeled, smooth yet wise-cracking William Powell) as her personal family butler, after he expresses open contempt for the Park Avenue elite and their childish antics… only to not only find herself falling in love with him, to the complete disbelief of her eccentric family, but realizing there might be a financial skeleton or two in his closet…

The Gregory La Cava series continues (alas, entirely projected on mostly blurry 16mm dupes), with one of the old-time filmmaker’s biggest hits, the screwball comedy My Man Godfrey, a tale that pokes mostly gentle fun at the idle rich and their morally vacuous ways. Its attempts at social points dealing with the plight of the poor from which our good butler seemingly escapes from isn’t all that convincing (especially that it’s ultimately the good will of the rich that saves them) and that the rags-to-riches tale is a bit iffy, considering Godfrey reveal himself as a wealthy magnate who disappeared into poverty to mend a broken heart. Yet, somehow, it’s all excusable, watching this enjoyable cast banter with sophisticated style to spare, given the audience that screwball comedy portal into elegant worlds, where cleverness is king, that few of us will ever come near.

I don’t have a clear memory of any particular stand-out scene and (I don’t care how many academy award nominations the film received – and it was a lot) it reaches nowhere near the sublime comedy timing perfection of fellow genre standards like, say, Trouble in Paradise, yet there’s still much going on that’s works. I haven’t seen much of Lombard before and she’s obviously having a wonderful time playing her less-than-intellectual role (with only a slight problem of her seemingly not being quite able to hide an obvious underlying intelligence). Powell continues the masterful even-keeled, smooth yet wisecracking persona (with the only thing missing is the martini in hand and the slight hiccup from having had too many of them) he had perfected with his half (the other being Myrna Loy) of the married Nick and Nora, the ongoing series of light-hearted and enjoyable whodunnits (with him the detective, her the wealthy heiress) amongst the upper-crust making up the The Thin Man series. So often the case in the best of the screwballs, the side characters are a hoot, and Godfrey is no different. The inimitable comic actor Eugene Pallette, with his unmistakable deep frog-voice and large physique (quite hard to fathom that he started as a slender leading man in the silents) is, as always, a joy, this time as the eternally nonplussed patriarch of the household, Alexander Bullock, having given up years ago trying to control the manic-lifestyles of his out-on-the-town daughters and exceedingly ditzy wife (Alice Brady, another great joy), including having her (supposedly talented) musical protégé, Carlos, who she is smitten with (though more like a pet than a person) always hanging about, who Bullock entirely recognizes as a moocher but can’t do anything about, while trying to keep them all protected from the realities of his failing fortunes (and somewhat crooked business actions).

My Man Godfrey is far from the progressive-minded romp into the battle of the genders that so much of the best of screwball comedy is (and that, with its narrative, was clearly capable of being). Our disguised butler Godfrey turns out to be the saviour figure (even providing redemption for the scheming Cornelius), the man who reveals himself not to be a downtrodden derelict at all but one of the elites himself, who pretended (because he can, and for a short time only, naturally) the honorable calling of being destitute, who provides the male stability the family desperately needs with all those impulsive and unpredictable women running about. Still? It’s hard not to partake from the well of joy in listening to all that clever repartee and get swept up in all those wonderful performers plying their trade. Even the story, with its contrasting economic milieus, while ultimately never coming close to fulfilling its potential or being anything more than the gentlest of slaps on the wrist of the self-serving privileged and their clueless ways, does at least provide glimpses at, and acknowledges, the disparity within its entertainment setting, which is at least something.

My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava, 1936)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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