Bright Lights Film Journal

Gregory La Cava’s <em>My Man Godfrey</em> on DVD

Alice Brady, Carole Lombard, Mischa Auer, William Powell, and director Gregory La Cava on the set of My Man Godfrey

The Criterion Collection offers another scrumptious golden-era DVD

Criterion has spruced up the peerless 1936 Universal comedy My Man Godfrey and given it a bright new sheen. The digital transfer is so glimmering, in fact, that we might say it has never looked better in our lifetime. But Godfrey is much more than a pretty silver-tinted relic. So long as we live in a world of vulgar inequalities, Godfrey will have relevance. The story of a mysterious butler who carbonates a household of madcap swells is ageless, and we marvel that such a piquant piece of film can be 65 years old.

My Man Godfrey is foremost a screwball comedy, albeit one with considerable tang. As a Depression-era product, it has plenty to say about responsibility in hard times, but it maintains a light touch throughout. The weightier implications of class, wealth, and social justice never bog down the lunacy. Director Gregory La Cava achieves this through repeated crossings of class lines. In a country divided by money and status, we first see the rich folks mucking around the city dumps. Moments later a bedraggled hobo shows up at the Waldorf Ritz Hotel. That’s just the beginning of the incongruities that spoke to audiences in the 1930s as they do to us today. Rich and dizzy Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) dares to cross the divide by her active adoration of “forgotten man” Godfrey (William Powell). Irene and maid Molly (played by brittle wisecracker Jean Dixon) commiserate over Godfrey and further break down barriers of the working and idling classes. Repeatedly, La Cava and company serve up the rich as silly, frivolous, childlike, and trivial, while the poor are strong, dignified, generous, and compassionate. Miraculously, he gives us these elemental distinctions without the torpor of penny-ante philosophizing or the goo of Capraesque speechifying.

My Man Godfrey is chock full of wonderful acting. Eugene Pallette, as the gravel-voiced patriarch of the Bullock family, has a charming befuddlement that defuses any sinister undertones. (Pallette was one of those reliable supporting players who were in hundreds of movies without becoming famous. You’ll find him in Topper, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Young Tom Edison, The Lady Eve, The Bride Came C.O.D., The Male Animal, Heaven Can Wait…) Alice Brady as mother Angelica flutters about with such daffiness that she nearly floats away on a diaphanous skirt. Mischa Auer is Carlo, the free loading “protégé” whose only discernible talents are eating and imitating a gorilla. Raven-haired Gail Patrick, as scheming daughter Cornelia, is the closest thing My Man Godfrey has to a villain. Her arched eyebrows and general haughtiness offer perfect counterpoint to the twittering people that otherwise infest the Bullock home.

Lombard was made of the stuff of movie stars, blessed with the rare and precious combination of genuine talent and radiant beauty. Garson Kanin called her an “on the level woman,” and that forthright quality shines right through to her performance as Irene, possibly the ditsiest member of a household teetering on the brink of chaos. When she conducts an ad hoc job interview on Powell, she asks him “Do you buttle?”, and the line has double funny impact because of her sincere and clarion-clear delivery.

Volumes have been written about the charms of Lombard, but less on William Powell. His Godfrey is a wonderment of reserve and benign passivity. With seeming invisible technique, he moves from bum to butler to Harvard man to drunk to entrepreneur. He is the pivot, the stranger who passed this way while silly people find strength and wisdom through him. The character device has fueled many a movie to great effectiveness, from Shane to Mary Poppins to Being There, but never with more lighthearted élan.

Film historian Bob Gilpin, one of the world’s leading Godfreyologists, supplies the accompanying audio commentary on this disc. He guides us through every scene with loving detail on the expectations of Depression-era audiences and the conventions of the screwball comedy. On the debit side, he sounds ever so slightly pretentious using lingo such as deus ex machina and sotto voce, and occasionally his interpretations are suspect. He claims we are uncertain at one point of the outcome of the triangular romantic complications between Irene, Cornelia, and Godfrey. Since when was Gail Patrick ever a threat to Carole Lombard? I’d say we know precisely how things will turn out. Our pleasure is derived from riding the labyrinthine plot all the way to the inevitable matrimonial clutch of Godfrey and Irene. Any other resolution would be an unimaginable violation of the genre, which Gilpin otherwise insightfully analyzes.

Occasionally Gilpin pulls a real boner. He states that My Man Godfrey was Lombard’s first starring role, which must come as a big surprise to anyone who ever saw No Man of Her Own (1932), Twentieth Century (1934), or any one of her movies at Paramount and Columbia in the early 1930s. He also states – twice – that William Powell competed with himself for the Best Actor Academy Award for My Man Godfrey and The Great Ziegfeld, winning for the later. Wherever did Gilpin get such wildly inaccurate information? Powell wasn’t a nominee, much less a winner, for The Great Ziegfeld. The 1936 actor prize went to Paul Muni for The Story of Louis Pasteur. Such errors do way too much harm to Gilpin’s credibility.

Speaking of Academy Awards, Godfrey’s nominations illustrate just how screwball voting can be. It was the first film to receive nominations in all four acting categories. In addition to Powell’s mention, Lombard was up for Best Actress, Mischa Auer for Best Supporting Actor, and Alice Brady for Best Supporting Actress. Mentions were also given to Gregory La Cava for Director and Eric Hatch and Morris Ryskind for Screenplay. Godfrey was up for every major award except Best Picture, and in 1936 there were ten films nominated. One of them, Libeled Lady, wasn’t nominated in any other category. Explain that if you can. Perhaps a great screwball comedy can be made of Academy “logic.” In loving tribute, it could be called My Man Oscar.