My Man Godfrey, 1936, Universal Pictures. Starring William Powell, Carole Lombard. Directed by Gregory La Cava. B&W (colorized version also available), 94 minutes.
A scattered young woman discovers a surprisingly sophisticated hobo and hires him as the butler for her wealthy family, and he in turn shines a sometimes unwelcome light on their chaotic, misguided lifestyle.
Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) and her sister Cornelia (Gail Patrick) are looking for a “forgotten man” as part of a scavenger hunt, and come upon Godfrey Smith (William Powell) at a city dump. The two women are on separate teams, and when Godfrey pushes Cornelia into the trash in response to her offer of five dollars to help her win the prize, Irene decides it’s best to walk away as well.
But Godfrey, after talking to the flighty Irene, chooses to go back to the ballroom with her so she can win the scavenger hunt and triumph over her sister. She’s delighted, even when, after her team’s victory is declared, he stands and denounces the group of wealthy citizens. She offers him a job as the family’s butler, which he graciously accepts.
Cornelia remains bitter toward Godfrey, and does what she can to undermine his abilities and character. She quickly realizes, although the rest of the family seems oblivious to it, that Irene is falling for their new servant.
In addition to dizzy Irene and conniving Cornelia, there’s the mother, Angelica (Alice Brady), a featherbrained woman who perhaps drinks a little too much and indulges her “protegée,” Carlo (Mischa Auer), a man who is clearly taking advantage of the family. There’s also Alexander Bullock (Eugene Pallette), the husband & father, who’s burdened by the weight of his failing business and family’s antics.
Showing the wealthy to be frivolous and foolish was a classic Depression-era theme, as was giving someone down-and-out sudden wealth. This is a definitive screwball comedy, with yes, implausible plot elements, but a realistic plot line is hardly important here.
What is important is the effortless acting of the two stars, the strength of talent of the supporting cast, the fine direction by Gregory La Cava and all the elements of cinematography, lighting, set decoration, costume and the rest that sets movies of that era apart from movies today.
Powell had lobbied for Lombard to star in the movie, and La Cava, a personal friend of hers, was in agreement. The two stars had divorced three years earlier after two years of marriage, but remained good friends until her death in 1942 in a plane crash. The chemistry between them is evident and somewhat mirrors their real-life personas; he the quieter, more urbane of the two, she the unconventional, outspoken one.
My Man Godfrey was nominated for six Academy Awards: Best Director, Best Actor for Powell, Best Actress for Lombard, Best Supporting Actress for Alice Brady, Best Supporting Actor for Mischa Auer and Best Writing, Screenplay for Eric Hatch and Morrie Ryskind.
It’s the only movie to date to be nominated in all four acting categories without being nominated for Best Picture, and until 2013, was the only film to be nominated in these six categories without winning any of them.
The movie has been colorized, and both versions are available on DVD (generally the same DVD). This trailer has been colorized: