My Man Godfrey, 1936, Universal Pictures. Starring William Powell, Carole Lombard. Directed by Gregory La Cava. B&W (colorized version also available), 94 minutes.
Society elite Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) and her sister Cornelia (Gail Patrick) are seeking a “forgotten man” as part of a scavenger hunt, and come upon Godfrey Smith (William Powell) living at a city dump. The two women are on separate teams, and Cornelia is the first to offer Godfrey five dollars if he’ll help her win the prize. Her offer is met with a shove into a pile of ashes, and Irene decides it’s best to walk away as well.
But Godfrey, after talking to the flighty Irene, chooses to help her win the scavenger hunt and triumph over her sister. To her delight, he denounces the group of wealthy citizens applauding him after her team’s victory is declared. She offers him a job as the family’s butler, which he graciously accepts.
Cornelia, still bitter toward Godfrey, does her best to undermine his abilities and character. It’s soon obvious to her, 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 drinks a little too much; her “protegé,” Carlo (Mischa Auer), a man who is clearly taking advantage of the family; and husband and father Alexander Bullock (Eugene Pallette), a man 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. 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:
Roger Ebert pointed out that the movie is a bit more risque than you might think. Carol Lombard’s character says that she would sew on Godfrey’s buttons, if needed. Back in those days, men’s trousers had buttons where now they have zippers. Hmmmn.
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They pushed the limits whenever they could!
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Love this movie….and of course, another of your splendid reviews! Thank you!
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My favorite screwball comedy! It’s hilarious and it says something important about social inequality. Mischa Auer is a hoot! (I just love how crazy he is here).
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