Monday, December 16, 2019
The 12 Days of Carole Lombard: My Man Godfrey (1936)
The public domain has many gems tucked away in its recesses. You've got all the films the big studios either forgot or didn't care about, and you've got the entire libraries of smaller studios that dissolved and left everything to everyone. But every now and then studios make a mistake. I guess it's easy to see how this can happen in hindsight, but to use It's a Wonderful Life as an example, that movie was poison on its release. No-one watched it, the critics didn't like it, and it practically put an end to Frank Capra's career. Yet because of a clerical error it became a television staple during the Christmas season, and was accidentally retconned into being a classic (which is a deserving [fate] for that, as it is a wonderful film). Out of all such films, perhaps the most well known is the 1936 classic My Man Godfrey...
On the night of a scavenger hunt for rich people, socialite Cornelia Bullock tries finding a 'forgotten man' to present as a prize. Her find, Godfrey, resents this treatment and promptly shoves her into an ash pile. Only a few moments later her younger sister Irene shows up, more understanding than her sister, and leaves such an impression on Godfrey that he decides to be her 'forgotten man' to help her win the hunt, and to stick it to Cornelia. After the game's end, and after speaking his mind to the wealthy of New York, Godfrey soon finds himself newly employed as the Bullock family butler, with Irene wanting him to be her protege. He comes to see how crazy the wealthy can be, and tries his best navigating through his new life, avoiding Irene's romantic overtures/advances, and trying to make something of his life...
My Man Godfrey is a hilarious screwball comedy, long since considered one of the best. Containing both William Powell and Carole Lombard in their prime, there's no question that it was going to be a winner! The story is well written, with a colourful set of characters, but it has many things that make it stand out.
The movie begins with a bang with its loud scavenger hunt, and after this frenetic opening, the movie settles down comfortably. It's got its crazier and louder moments here and there, but by and large it's a cosy comedy, taking advantage of the rich/opulent setting. The story is well crafted, and from its arresting introduction, to the various shenanigans and problems both big and small, there's never a dull moment.
The message at the heart of My Man Godfrey is a noble one, that more people nowadays should take stock in, with its themes of privilege and charity.
The characters here are great. Godfrey is a charming and mysterious presence, always knowing more than everyone else in the room, but always underplaying it. In other films Irene might be portrayed as the only same man of the family (so to speak), but Irene is just as crazy as everyone else! Just in a different way. She's needy, melodramatic, and impulsive, but is always likeable. Cornelia meanwhile is a bitch, but in a fun way. She never gets annoying to watch, and you relish the character's dialogue and scheming,
Something I like is how everyone in the family have different interactions with Godfrey, from Irene's blind adulation, to Cornelia's blind hatred, and the mother's fawning over him like he's an = and font of wisdom when he's only been here/with them a day. Then there's the [doomsaying] maid, and the sympathetic patriarch, who's shocked Godfrey hasn't been driven to drink after a few days.
The acting here is stand-out/exemplary. Carole Lombard delivers an insane and adorable performance, with tons of energy. It's not hard to see why she won an Oscar for the role. William Powel is more subtle, in an effective way. He manages to come across like a sage-like presence all without raising his voice. The rest of the cast all thoroughly entertain too. Alice Brady is entertaining as the sweet/good-natured but scatterbrained mother, Eugene Pallette is good as the exasperated father, and Gail Patrick is devious and scheming as Cornelia, but with some semblance of a softer side, albeit a rare and fleeting one. Mischa Aur succeeded in making me want to punch him in the face, which is great for his performance as Carlo! Food guzzling reprobate! Aland Mowbray is fine in his role, and lastly, Jean Dixon is cute and funny as the snarky maid Molly.
My Man Godfrey is a great introduction to a lot of things, from the screwball comedy genre, 1930s cinema in general, and its two stars/lead actors, who show effortlessly why they're so fondly remembered...