All the elements that make 1930's screwball comedy enjoyable and endearing can be found in Gregory La Cava's My Man Godfrey. The juxtaposition of the rich to the poor, zany irrationality to logic along with a constant battle between dithering woman and confused men, rapid fire dialogue and a dash of haute monde slapstick comedy.
Screwball comedies rose out of the Depression in the 1930's as a way of depicting the idle rich through wacky tales in which they must learn to readjust their morals. It may have struck a cord with 1930's audiences because it let them see the rich in an incompetent light. And even though the comedies didn't help people directly during tough times they did provide then with a good number of laughs.
William Powell is Godfrey Parke a forgotten man who lives in a trash dump on the East River in New York. He is picked up by a slightly batty rich woman named Irene (Carol Lombard) who needs a 'forgotten man' for a game called a scavenger hunt in which the rich bring discarded items to a party. She wins the competition but out of guilt, pity and a little admiration for this interesting man she invites Godfrey to be her family's butler.
Godfrey accepts the position and thus enters into the wealthy oddball lives of the Bullock family – non of which, by the way, look anything alike. Godfrey not only serves them but must deal with their maddening eccentricities and schemes to make him leave: Notably Irene's sister Cornelias (Gail Patrick) who is determined to bring Godfrey down from his seemingly self righteous position. He too must continually deflect the passes that Irene makes at him so that he can keep his butler etiquette professional. In time the family finds out that Godfrey's enigmatic past has a similarity to theirs
Ostensibly, My Man Godfrey is about the obligations and responsibilities that people have toward one another but -- like so many screwball comedies -- it is lacquered with an off kilter love story and a sense of the absurd.
The film is presented in the original 1.33 to 1 aspect ratio and it was digitally transferred from a 35-mm duplicate negative. Since the film was made in the 1930's -- and most likely was not restored for a few decades -- the print shows sighs of wear and tear with a good number of scratches throughout the print. The print is occasionally soft and – since all of the scenes were done indoors and there isn't much light contrast -- the film has a slightly dark look. On the plus side there is no edge enhancement and the picture quality looks far better than any VHS or DVD that has previously been available.
The sound is presented mono and although it isn't as rich and full as we expect from today's films it is okay. Part of the sound deficiencies, of course, can be attributed to age of the film as well as the available technology in 1936. There are some hissing and scratches but it's not enough to distract the film's funny dialogue. If anything, the dialogue is so fast and rather consistent with few silent moments that any track hissing is barely noticeable.
There are a good amount of extras including a commentary track, a radio play, archival news footage and rare outtakes. The Commentary Track by Bob Gilpin is both a history lesson and a close reading of the film's themes and issues. The commentary is very much like a film school lecture and at times Mr Gilpin seems to be reading rather than discussing what is being shown on the DVD. This works sort of like a radio show and you don't necessarily need to watch the screen. Of course, if you're not taking notes this can be a distracting rather than enlightening.
The radio show is The complete 1938 broadcast of the Lux Radio Theater adaptation of My Man Godfrey. This radio play stars Powell and Lombard and is a shortened version of the movie. Each chapter has a different still from the radio show's recording session, but it too can be heard without looking at the screen.
The Production Still Archive has 34 photographs, and there is a vintage trailer that lasts a minute and about five minutes of Archive News Footage that features a day in the life of a hobo in a Hooverville and a comparison between the rich and the poor in 1930's America. There is also a teaser of Rare Outtakes that looked like they had been pulled from a nitrate dust vault - which they probably were. I say a teaser because it is only about a minute long but has some great outtakes, which mainly consist of Powell and Lombard totally screwing up their lines and then throwing out expletives left and right. There are white subtitles for the hearing impaired and the film is 93 minutes with 21 chapters.
To today's TV audience screwball comedies have lost a bit of their meaning but if you don't have a problem with black & white film (and why should you?) or good clean comedy fun then they are still highly enjoyable. If you are a fan of screwball comedy this is one of the best. And Criterion's presentation with all the extras make this currently the most completely packaged screwball comedy on DVD. If you haven't seen the film and you want a good example of the quick paced wackiness and implausible romances of the screwball genre then this DVD is the place to start.