My Man Godfrey

Studio: Criterion

Sep 20, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Although they function primarily as escapist entertainment, screwball comedies had more than a bit of class consciousness built into their DNA. The genre came to prominence just as America was beginning to claw its way out of the Great Depression and while these films almost always focus on the exploits of the decadently wealthy, there’s usually an audience insert character on hand to poke fun at the out-of-touch aristocracy. That dynamic inevitably manifests along a gender divide with a working class guy being baffled and irritated by a flighty rich girl before ultimately falling for her. Think Jimmy Stewart’s curmudgeonly reporter paired with Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story or Clark Gable’s rakish reporter - remember when Americans identified with the press? - paired with Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night. Gregory La Cava’s 1936 film My Man Godfrey takes the already prominent subtext of the genre and throws it up on the screen in size one hundred font. Far from didactic, however, the film feels as fresh and charming as it would have eighty-two years ago when it became the first film to be nominated in all four acting categories at the Academy Awards.

The film opens with Carole Lombard’s daffy socialite Irene Bullock traversing a dump along the East River in order to find a “forgotten man” for the purposes of a scavenger hunt. She encounters the world’s most articulate, world-weary hobo in the form of William Powell’s Godfrey Smith. Enamored by the smarmy dressing-down Godfrey gives her spoiled social circle after he helps her win the scavenger hunt, Irene impulsively hires Godfrey to serve as her family’s new butler. Godfrey soon finds himself playing the exasperated baby-sitter to Irene, her friendly dimwit of a mother, her peevish grump of a father and her conniving snake of a sister.

While many later entries in the screwball genre featured broad performances and increasingly wacky misunderstandings, My Man Godfrey feels calmer and more grounded than most of the films that followed it. This is likely due to Powell’s performance as the titular character acting as an anchor for a story that ultimately has more on its mind than getting some laughs. His subtle, but nuanced reactions to the insanity unfolding around him are hilarious, but always believable, and the quiet dignity he brings to the character never feels like it’s meant to be the butt of the jokes. Needless to say, he’s an excellent foil to Lombard, whose performance feels downright fearless compared to the work of her contemporaries. Playing Irene like the shared ancestor of Leslie Knope and Luna Lovegood, Lombard nails the aggressive agreeability of a young woman with an intense crush, conveying deep feeling and blissful vacancy, often in the same look. The supporting cast is too rich to highlight in its entirety, but special mention must be made of Alice Brady as Irene’s delightful idiot of a mother and Gail Patrick as Irene’s scheming sister, who enters every scene as though she’s Snow White’s mother on her way to a jazz club. Despite creating a cacophony of clashing personalities, the razor sharp script keeps the film focused on the indignities heaped on the poor by the uncaring rich, all without scolding its audience or asking them to hate any of the characters. It’s a joyous reminder that comedies can make you feel good without making you feel stupid as well.

Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition of My Man Godfrey leans into the films’ social consciousness, featuring discussions about La Cava’s life and career as a leftist filmmaker working in Hollywood, as well as Depression-era newsreel footage addressing class divides in America.



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