20 April 2018

My Man Godfrey (1936)

Directed by: Gregory La Cava
Music: Charles Previn, Rudy Schrager
Starring:  William Powell, Carol Lombard, 
Alice Brady, Eugene Pallette, 
Gail Patrick, Jeanne Dixon, 
Alan Mowbray
It only happens at the movies. And sometimes, it only happens to the movies – this one garnered nominations in all the four main acting categories and yet missed the ‘Best Picture’. It is also the first film to garner six Academy Award nominations and win none. But US Library of Congress retrospectively did it justice when it was deemed ‘culturally significant’ and preserved in the National Film Registry. At the turn of the century, the film was rated #44 in the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Funniest Comedies. This is My Man Godfrey, adapted from 1101 Park Avenue, a novel by Eric Hatch (who also collaborated on the screenplay).

It is the period of the Great Depression. Godfrey Smith (William Powell) is one of the men who are living at the New York City dump on the East River near 59th Street. Along comes the spoilt socialite, Cornelia Bullock (Gail Patrick) searching for a ‘forgotten man’ as part of a scavenger hunt.
Running into Smith, she offers him $5 if he would come to the party with her. Offended, Smith menacingly advances towards her, causing her to move back in fright. Unfortunately for the young lady, she trips and falls into a pile of ash. Furious, she flounces off, much to her younger sister, Irene’s (Carol Lombard) glee.
She stops to talk to Smith, and the latter discovers that Irene has a kind heart under her apparent ditziness. She enlists Smith’s help to beat Cornelia in the scavenger hunt, and strangely, he agrees. The party is at the Waldorf-Ritz and in the hotel’s resplendent ballroom is not only Cornelia, but Irene’s parents, business magnate Alexander Bullock (Eugene Pallette) and his arty wife, Angelica (Alice Brady). Also present is Carlo (Mischa Auer), Angelica’s ‘protégé’, and a goat.
Godfrey’s presence seals Irene’s win, much to Cornelia’s dismay. However, Godfrey’s remarks make those present uncomfortable, and Irene, trying to make amends, offers Godfrey a job – to be the Bullocks’ butler. Godfrey agrees.
The next day, Godfrey cleans up well, and presents himself at the Bullock residence. Molly (Jeanne Dixon), the Bullocks’ wisecracking maid, shows him around, and informs him that he’s the latest in a long line of butlers. The Bullocks are a nutty family, she tells Godfrey, and she’s the only one who’s managed to put up with their mad capers.
Godfrey, however, manages to fit right in. What’s more, he’s an extremely competent butler though Cornelia hates his guts. However, is Godfrey who he says he is? It seems not – at a tea party thrown by Irene, Tommy Gray (Alan Mowbray) recognises Godfrey and is about to spill the beans when Godfrey, with great presence of mind, informs Irene that he had been Tommy’s valet while he was at Harvard. 
Surprised, Tommy plays along, even embellishing the cover by giving Godfrey a wife and several children.

Irene, who is more than half in love with Godfrey by now, is dismayed – impetuously, she announces her engagement to Charlie Van Rumple (Grady Sutton), who’s more surprised than pleased. However, when Godfrey congratulates her, Irene bursts into tears and runs away. 
Tommy is not about to let Godfrey off that easily – why is the elite Godfrey Parke of Boston pretending to be a butler in New York? A broken heart, says Godfrey. He had thought of committing suicide, but the friendship of the forgotten men in the dump had taught him something valuable. 
Just then, Tommy is called to the telephone. While he’s away, Cornelia sits down at the table and tries to mend fences with Godfrey – on her terms. He refuses and Cornelia leaves, angrier than ever. Furious at his behaviour, Cornelia ends up planting her pearl necklace under Godfrey’s mattress and notifying the police about the ‘robbery’. 
Only, things don't go as planned. Not only do the police not find the necklace in Godfrey’s room, they begin to suspect this is a put-up job. Alexander realises that this was Cornelia’s doing, and escorts the police out of the house, offering them a fat cheque for them to 'forget it'. Back inside, he promptly informs Cornelia that the necklace wasn’t insured.

Meanwhile Irene has broken her engagement. The Bullocks send their daughters away to Europe so Irene can recover from her ‘broken heart’. 
Much to Irene's dismay, upon their return, Cornelia sets about trying to blackmail Godfrey. Irene stymies her effort to get Godfrey alone by pretending to faint right into Godfrey’s arms.
Alexander has no time for his daughters’ shenanigans. He’s lost all his money on the stock market and is in danger of facing criminal charges. What will happen to the Bullocks now? Where is that pearl necklace? And why has Godfrey quit?
There’s much to like in this screwball comedy starting with the leads. Once briefly married, Powell and Lombard complemented each other on screen. (In fact, Powell had insisted on Lombard playing Irene.) Their repartee is crisp and witty, and the stars play off each other to add sparkle to the written lines. Powell is cool, dry, and reserved. Lombard is dreamy, ditzy, given to much drama, and altogether impossible. Together, they create magic.
Then there is the supporting cast – Eugene Pallette, Alice Brady, Gail Patrick, Alan Mowbray, Jeanne Dixon – who all chew up their lines and spit it out in one great dialogue after another. While Alice Brady plays the fluttery high society matron with panache, Jeanne and Eugene, in fact, get some of the best lines in the film.
Godfrey: May I be frank?
Molly: Is that your name?
Godfrey: No, my name is Godfrey.
Molly: All right, be frank.
While Eugene as Alexander gets to say, ‘Life in this family is one subpoena after another.’ And, ‘I don’t mind giving the government 60% of what I make, but I can’t do that when my family spends 50%.’ (To which, Irene remarks, ‘But why should the government get more money than your family?’) 
Or Lombard’s breathless, ‘Godfrey loves me. He put me in the shower!

Like all screwball comedies, the plot is implausible – the climax can only happen in films. However, that doesn’t take anything away from the fabulous way it all plays out on screen. For that moment, at least, you want to believe. They make you believe.  

The Criterion Collection remastered print is crisp and clean, and it's a joy to watch an old black and white film restored to its pristine beauty.

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