Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Undeniably one of the funniest of the screwball comedies, My Man Godfrey is
also one of the least forced. A witty script takes precedence over outrageous
slapstick and the characters actually make sense, even when they don't resemble
anyone we're ever likely to meet. It's a fairy tale fantasy about the lovable
rich folk of Fifth Avenue, but is so deft and witty that it places itself
above the necessity of making deep social statements.
Godfrey, an erudite bum (William Powell) squatting on an East River
ash-pile dumpsite, is picked up for a scavenger hunt by wealthy Irene Bullock (Carole
Lombard), and taken back to the nuttiest family in Manhattan to try the role of butler
on for size. The Bullocks are a flamboyant bunch of zanies. Irene is flighty, impulsive,
and charming. Her sister Cornelia broods and schemes. Mother is a featherbrained ditz
who keeps a mooching 'protegé' named Carlo (Mischa Auer). And pops (Eugene Pallette) is a dour
stockbroker with money woes and no ability whatsoever to rein in his family's
shenanigans. Naturally, Godfrey's charm and tact slowly win them all over, even when
they suspect he's not the vagrant he seemed at the beginning.
My Man Godfrey is not particularly concerned with its own social consciousness,
and revels in basic unlikelihoods that nevertheless seem wholly appropriate. The bum
who becomes a butler is really a disillusioned rich guy going incognito; a Hoover Town
dump becomes a swanky nightclub. The humble servant saves his employer from his
financial foolishness in the stock market.
Perhaps people like screwball comedies because the banter in them is a lot like
how people really talk - everyone makes self-centered noise, and nobody communicates much.
The only agenda is Just Plain Fun, a fact that maybe relieves the audience
of the responsibility of appreciating serious entertainment. Gregory La Cava made a number of
these effortless-looking comedies, such as Easy Living, that benefited from truly
witty and sophisticated scripts. The reason they were usually set in high-class settings
is simply because when the rich get silly, they make a good satirical target.
Everyone is stridently honest in their selfish characters - Godfrey is something of a mystery,
but we're impressed by his patience and ethics, qualities that most of the others never heard
of. It's a Fairy tale world where Irene's flighty caprices become all-important issues. Hoboes are
good guys, but seem not to exist outside of an ironic attitude to their own
plight. Besides the usual assortment of petty-bourgeois offenses, the Rich folk are just plain
nice folks too, waiting for someone to show them some sense. Loveable dad certainly isn't perfect,
having put himself in line for Sing Sing with some bungled stock fraud. The only hint at a social
undercurrent is the assumed mistrust of the Mischa Auer gigolo character: He's foreign, a
moocher, and a phony artist to boot.
The dead-on timing and snappy delivery of 1001 great lines is amazing (and we thought 1936 was
an un-cool age) and shows the poverty of most modern situation comedies. Lucille Ball obviously
admired Lombard's skill; looking for an analog to Carole's style, Ball would seem to have emulated
her at times in her I Love Lucy sitcom. Enjoyable in smaller roles are Franklin Pangborn and Grady
Sutton, and the IMDB says that Jane Wyman is hiding somewhere in the scavenger-hunt crowd.
Criterion's disc of My Man Godfrey has several rather special extras. A brief docu
excerpt shows real 'forgotten men' in shantytowns, looking very much like the habitat in the
movie. A full-length radio dramatization with the main stars is included, complete with ads
for 'Lux toilet soap and flakes'. The trailer and stills are nice but the best extra
is a quick grabbag of blooper outtakes, with the cast and especially the famously
profane Lombard swearing a blue streak whenever lines are blown. The low quality of the
obviously multi-duplicated outtakes looks very much like the earlier public domain copies
Savant's seen of Godfrey, and serves double duty as a reminder of just how great this disc
looks and sounds. It's the first time I've caught all the dialogue, and the art deco
sets and high-key lighting look radiant. There's a lot of neat detail to be seen in the
swanky gimmick opening titles, that turn all of the credits into neon signs on a Hudson
river skyline. The movie was originally a Universal release, and it's nice to see an
older independent production that isn't a United Artists film, as so many great '30s and
'40s public domain titles seem to be.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
My Man Godfrey rates:
Supplements: Commentary by film historian Bob Gilpin, Theatrical trailer, outtake
bloopers, Production stills archive, The complete 1938 broadcast of the Lux Radio Theater
adaptation, starring Powell and Lombard, 'Forgotten man' newsreel essay.
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: July 8, 2001
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson