UK Release Date: 17th September 2018
Runtime: 93 minutes
Director: Gregory La Cava
Writer: Eric Hatch, Morrie Ryskind
Starring: William Powell, Carole Lombard, Gail Patrick, Alice Brady, Eugene Pallette, Mischa Auer, Alan Mowbray, Jean Dixon
Synopsis: A pampered socialite befriends a man who lives on a dump and brings him into her home, where he becomes a charming and polite butler.
The heart of the Great Depression was not a pleasant time to be alive in America if you weren’t at the top of the social hierarchy. In 1932, Franklin D Roosevelt used the term “forgotten man” in a presidential address and it duly became the key phrase used to describe William Powell‘s title character in My Man Godfrey, which stands today as one of the most memorable classics of the screwball comedy canon. It’s a searing class satire from director Gregory La Cava that’s also a consistent machine gun of slapstick and one-liners. Even at the grand old age of 80, it’s a movie that stands the test of time and is now out again in the UK courtesy of a new Criterion Collection Blu-ray.
Powell’s Godfrey is discovered by socialite siblings Cornelia (Gail Patrick) and Irene (Carole Lombard) living on a dump at the side of the East River in New York City. He jokes with friends about the constant refrain that “prosperity is just around the corner”, despite the fact that particular corner never seems to be visible. Cornelia and Irene are looking to find a “forgotten man” in order to win a scavenger hunt for unthinking members of the upper crust. Godfrey immediately takes a dislike to the snooty Cornelia, but warms to Irene, who offers him a job as the family butler. He excels at his new job, despite the rapidly spiralling eccentricities of the family he now serves.
Godfrey, with William Powell turning his not inconsiderable charm all the way up to 11, proves to be a terrific counterpoint to the desperately hoity-toity Bullock family, around whom the narrative swirls. They are portrayed as being thoroughly ridiculous and entirely wrapped up in the ersatz reality of their upper crust society. Alice Brady‘s shrieking turn as the Bullock sisters’ mother is matched only by the withering sarcasm of the family maid, played by Jean Dixon with a permanently raised eyebrow and a fine array of doomy proclamations for Godfrey’s limited future in his role.
The chemistry between Powell and Carole Lombard – the pair had married and divorced by the time My Man Godfrey came around – is utterly undeniable and really helps to maintain the screwball momentum of the storytelling. Powell is a creature of unerring politeness with the occasional snarky aside, while Lombard has a sort of airheaded motormouth style that will be recognisable to more modern audiences as similar to Alyson Hannigan‘s breathless storyteller in the American Pie franchise. Together, their turbulent nearly-romance gives the film an emotional heart as well as a comedic one.
But the true genius of My Man Godfrey is in the social commentary that runs throughout the madcap slapstick and alarmingly realistic gorilla impressions – yes, really. Powell’s character is driven by a desire to improve his own life and also that of the people with whom he previously lived and scrounged while at the dump. Revelations midway through the movie shed some light on the character’s back story, but they never blunt his position as the thinking poor man in the midst of rich fools who are either as thick as two short planks, manipulative and grim or just entirely and blissfully unaware of anything happening outside of their window.
Even aside from its political viewpoint, My Man Godfrey excels as a purely energetic and smart screwball comedy. It perhaps doesn’t hit the heights of Some Like It Hot in terms of being the pinnacle of screwball, but the farce elements are played very well and every member of the ensemble is firing in all cylinders to make the movie fly. That it works as well as it does almost a century after its release is a very impressive feat.
In a rarity for a release from this long ago, there’s an enjoyable blooper reel. The meat of the extra features, though, comes in a pair of new interviews, including an appreciation of La Cava’s career with PERSON NAME and a look at the making of the film, hosted by author PERSON NAME. Both of these are well worth a watch and provide plenty of interesting info.
Pop or Poop?
Comedy meets class with delightfully raucous consequences in My Man Godfrey, which marks Gregory La Cava’s entry into the world of screwball and farce. With William Powell and Carole Lombard delivering instantly memorable leading turns at the head of a beautifully wild ensemble, this is a movie that benefits from a snappy script packed with allusions to the politics of the Great Depression and the ignorance of those at the top of this society.
Most importantly, though, it’s just an exceptionally funny comedy movie that allows its actors the room to shine in a real showcase of wit and physical humour.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
My Man Godfrey is available on Blu-ray in the UK now, as part of the Criterion Collection.