My Man Godfrey (1936, Gregory La Cava)
The more movies you see, the more you spot certain adherences to formula even in the ones that make you happiest: as bright and joyous as screwball comedies can be, one does eventually become capable of playing a certain bingo game with them — the big house, the fractured nutty family, the oblivious fog of affluence and privilege and an ironic counterpoint to same, the deadpan father figure or other side characters, the noisy chaos, the determined heroine, and usually, the barely-concealed sexual explosion. Of course some of these are the things that mark the appeal of such films, but as with film noir in the decades to follow, perhaps what makes the screwball such a fascinating, addictive and — necessarily — time-limited artifact is how differently its parameters could be interpreted by various writers and directors, and how quickly those same writers and directors utterly exhausted them. For as many traits as My Man Godfrey shares with Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve, William Wellman and Ben Hecht’s Nothing Sacred, Howard Hawks and Charles Lederer’s His Girl Friday and Frank Capra and Robert Riskin’s It Happened One Night, it’s finally as different in tone if not content from any of those films as Hawks’, Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde’s Bringing Up Baby, the loudest and most extreme screwball of all, is from George Cukor’s Phillip Barry-derived Holiday, the warmest and most ethereal.
On a personal level, I also find it a bit less endearing than those others, even though there is much to love about it; perhaps it’s relevant that I came to it somewhat later than the rest of those save Holiday. But I always find myself struck by how whereas a manic, vibrant picture like Bringing Up Baby or one as sexy as The Awful Truth really encompasses all of the legendary facets and features of screwball in attitude and tone — remarriage narratives, hot feminine pursuits of hapless men, and again, wordy and wonderful chaos — My Man Godfrey ticks all the boxes in its story content without really taking off in the same way. It never becomes so funny or busy it’s hard to breathe, or so strange and idiosyncratic it launches itself into the heart, and even if at times it’s as verbose and quick as His Girl Friday or Twentieth Century, two more of Hawks’ comedies of the period, it’s in small doses, much less refined and subtle than Godfrey, which if anything seems to share a bit more with the innuendo-laden Lubitsch comedies of a few years earlier such as The Smiling Lieutenant (without the songs, or the mugging to camera) or Leo McCarey’s oddly leaden class commentary Ruggles of Red Gap starring Charles Laughton than it does with its presumptive bedfellows.
The humor in Godfrey is really, for the most part, a humor of small moments — its script (as opposed to the way that script is performed) is more wry and barbed than actively funny, or even witty in the manner of Lubitsch; it tells a story that could just as easily be a more generalized satire of class division during the Depression as the more screwball-typical relationship caper it becomes, or rather, that one character forces it to become. Indeed this is the real narrative of My Man Godfrey: the film appears to be telling one specific story but Carole Lombard’s Irene Bullock spends almost the entirety pushing the frame, like Daffy in Duck Amuck, over and away from the film’s natural focus with all her might. In its unmolested state it’s an examination of an odd family dynamic, a horde of blissfully ignorant rich folks, the blood-tied and fractured kooks known as the Bullocks, who bring in cool-headed homeless man William Powell semi-against his will to become their butler as kind of a lark. A different film might well have run with the natural contempt one feels for the Bullocks’ treatment of Powell’s Godfrey as a novelty, who’s initially brought in from a junkyard as literally a scavenger-hunt find, and certainly this is the bottom line for the whole first half of the picture. But Lombard, and presumably Gregory La Cava though who can really say, have other plans. So, for that matter, does Godfrey; we gradually learn he’s a disgraced former businessman whose pursuit of employment has specific and lofty ends in mind, and his intention is not to forget the fellow derelicts whom he’s befriended in the downtime.
Screenwriters Eric Hatch and Morris Ryskind work from a forgotten novella called 1101 Park Avenue by the former, a New Yorker staff writer, but the more famous of the two is Ryskind, due in large part less to his collaborations with George and Ira Gershwin and work on other films like several Marx Brothers pictures, His Girl Friday and La Cava’s own Stage Door than to his later association with William Buckley and Ronald Reagan in the burgeoning midcentury conservative movement. In cineaste circles he’s sometimes recalled for his friendly testimony before HUAC and the risible accusation he loved to hurl that his inability to sell any scripts thereafter was the real Hollywood blacklist. But while he would soon be writing anti-FDR campaign songs for Wendell Wilkie, as of 1936 he openly identified as a socialist. In its populist depiction of so-called “forgotten men” as having greater nobility and business acumen than the wealthy and powerful, with Godfrey eventually rescuing the Bullocks from their own flagrant indulgences through sheer ingenuity while also building the destitute men of the junkyard a hip nightclub to work in (called “the Dump”), you can sense the prevailing liberalism of the day, but there are also germs of the ugly Reaganisms that would eventually overtake Ryskind’s worldview — the “bootstraps” notion that opportunity to work is all that separates the poor from the rich, and that work itself lends a human their inherent dignity. It’s a thin line, though, and the matter mostly is explored here with the same compassion one knows from Capra’s ’30s output.
But none of this business about the Dump and the butler Godfrey’s secret ulterior motives is terribly funny; nor, in fact, is Powell’s performance — quite deliberately so. Powell was lively and droll in many of his best performances, not only in other screwballs like Libeled Lady or in his signature part as Nick Charles in The Thin Man but even when lighting up relatively mundane Philo Vance tales. Godfrey is one of his least gregarious parts, and not even because he is hiding behind thinly veiled disgust like Laughton in Ruggles; instead he’s a man whose cards are kept extremely close to the chest for the entirety of the film. Only in one scene, after a bender on his day off, does he step briefly outside of the mold of quiet, assured dignity and occasional sarcasm — usually directed at the conniving elder daughter of the house Cornelia (Gail Patrick in a role that neither gives much to nor receives much from her).
The comedy is generated from the sheer juxtaposition of Godfrey’s carefully cultivated imperturbability and the madness of the rest of the home’s occupants, all pushed and pulled between their warring factions: first there is Alice Brady’s perpetually hung-over matriarch Angelica, almost without question the model for Lucille Bluth, who doesn’t know what “bucks” are and proclaims constant confusion over everything anyone says while doting on her mysterious musical protégé and hanger-on Carlo (Mischa Auer), whose melodramatic gestures are the film’s most hilarious non-Lombard element and are still typically so offhand and backgrounded they’re easy to miss. Father figure Alexander Bullock, courtesy of gravely-voiced screwball staple (and onetime silent film heavy) Eugene Pallette, is the utopian portrait of an embarrassed-millionaire-to-be, too distracted by his family’s constant expensive machinations and court cases over public unruliness to concentrate on maintaining his status in the world. Jean Dixon’s maid Molly at first seems the one portal of sanity until she like Lombard eventually is driven crazy by Godfrey’s unruffled coolness and starts sewing his buttons back on his suit when he’s not home out of affection, though he doesn’t lose buttons much. (Dixon, who is absolutely terrific here, would go on to give an unforgettable performance in Cukor’s Holiday, sadly her last major film role before she retired to the stage.)
And then, of course, there is Irene.
Carole Lombard was in her late twenties when she made My Man Godfrey. In addition to being one of the most stunningly beautiful actors ever to work in the Hollywood studio system, she was a singular tempest all her own: unabashedly lustful, sharp-tongued, individualistic and effortlessly funny, she cultivated a persona that was, at the time her star rose to its greatest heights in the mid-’30s, genuinely new in mainstream popular culture. Well-known in the celebrity press for her two high-profile marriages, her glamour and for being a Paramount contract player mostly stuck in bland films and parts, she heroically went all-in on a fully energized screwball role in Hawks’ Twentienth Century, which altered the course of her legacy even though the film was not a box office success. When loaned out to other studios, as in Godfrey, which brought her the only Oscar nomination of her career, she was permitted to craft innovative, surprising and richly detailed performances that were never demanded of her at Paramount, and while this would continue sporadically until her tragic early death, her films still mark a cautionary tale of how the now-mythologized studio system just as often stymied talent as it developed it. Left without reins more often, Lombard might well have been ubiquitous in the great comedies of the era; instead, we have only a handful of pieces of evidence to convince us of how brilliant she was. But Godfrey, by itself, would really be enough to make the argument.
Irene’s relentless pursuit of Godfrey is the movie’s sole stroke of real wildness. On the one hand you could charge that it’s disappointing to see the brilliantly acerbic Lombard reduced to playing a seemingly one-dimensional character whose only object is to spill her guts and trip over herself to attract a male acquaintance’s attention, which is a mildly dispiriting departure from the often progressive nature of her usual roles (and the roles of many other women in screwball comedies); but at the same time Lombard deserves accolades for how genuinely surreal this performance is. It’s absolutely maniacal, incomprehensible, almost barely put-together — she’s a cross between Hepburn’s charged, calculated Bringing Up Baby persona and the Robot Maria in Metropolis — and it flies in the face of the relatively staid, novelistic nature of the story threads revolving around business affairs and the right to work; both elements are interesting, but Lombard’s presence is what allows the innocuous family scenes and the thoughtful explorations of Godfrey’s character not to become You Can’t Take It with You.
Lombard does not so dominate My Man Godfrey that it has nothing else to recommend. She and Powell are both thoroughly mesmerizing, just in completely different ways. The best moments in Alice Brady, Eugene Pallette and Mischa Auer’s performances all generate deserved chuckles and occasional big laughs. And La Cava, who came from an animation background in the silent era and whose most famous film this is by a longshot, proves himself an intelligent stylist along with cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff (apparently a contracted collaborator of Lombard’s who joined her for a time for films on which she was loaned out), weaving neatly and comically along the ornate staircases of the Bullock house and contributing one of the most stylish opening title sequences of the ’30s, a dockside procession of neon signage reading out the credits (curiously similar to the titles of another Powell film of the same year, The Great Ziegfeld at MGM). It’s a flavorful and elegant film. But let us be clear: it is absolutely nothing worth remembering for more than a few minutes without its leading lady.
Just how out-of-time-and-space Lombard’s role in My Man Godfrey is may be measured best by the final scene. She has never succeeded in puncturing Godfrey’s unerring control of his surroundings and, in reality, she never does; there is an unexpectedly sexy scene in which he trots a fainted Irene upstairs and, when he realizes she’s faking her spell, puts her in the shower and soaks her in her dress (to her clear delight), a moment magnified in its curious erotic tension by the knowledge that Lombard and Powell were in real life a long-divorced couple. But even then, Godfrey’s interest seems to come out of a smug prankishness — there is never any indication that he feels any attraction to her, and he certainly contributes no obvious chemistry to their pairing; their age difference is coyly commented on several times, especially by Cornelia, this too amplified by the ingeniously rendered feeling of adolescence in Lombard’s characterization of Irene. He remains impenetrable. And in the final scene, Irene’s dogged pursuit of not merely control of the butler but control of the destiny of the film she is in comes to a head when she barges into Godfrey’s fancy new office and apartment at the Dump and forces into existence a wedding scene that has absolutely no prompt or precedent and simply doesn’t belong; Powell, to his credit, refuses to visibly break even as the moment envelops him. They never even kiss, but they become lovers and a married couple because that is explicitly what Irene wants, and nothing — not the other characters, not the other actors, not the film, not Hollywood itself — can stop her from getting it. Nor do you want anything to stop her: she is the fun part of all this, the part that engenders joy, the part you long for and the part you constantly yearn to overtake the movie and your own experience of it. And in the end, magnificently, she succeeds.