Viewed some years ago, My Man Godfrey struck me only as a fun, witty romance, elevated by two performers who were in perfect synch with one another. Viewed in 2012, on the heels of a financial crisis, it seems a little more dated than I remember. Admittedly, despite its class warfare setup, Godfrey is more about incisive one-liners than incisive political commentary, but in a crumbling economy, viewers may find themselves with less sympathy toward the Godfrey character played by William Powell than they may have had otherwise.
When we first meet Godfrey, he's sitting in front of a fire at the city dump. He seems perfectly peaceful until a fancy car pulls up and a woman named Cornelia (Gail Patrick) pulls up, and tries to get him to hop in her car for five dollars. Suspicious of her motives, he backs her into an ash pile, and then back into her car, much to the amusement of her sister Irene (Carole Lombard). Irene is much nicer than her sister, explaining that both of them are competing in a scavenger hunt, and a "forgotten man" is one of the most valuable items. Irene is willing to throw in the towel -- "I've decided I don't want to play any more games with human beings as objects. It's kind of sordid when you think of it, I mean, when you think it over," she says -- but Godfrey agrees to go with her so that she can beat Cornelia, and as thanks, Irene hires him as the new family butler.
Despite her promise, it turns out that Irene is not as done with games as she says she is, and neither is every other crazy member of Irene's family. She and Cornelia are happy to spar over Godfrey and his right to be the new butler, as well as undercut the other's emotionally manipulative tricks. Irene's mother Angelica (Alice Brady) is busy with her own "protégé," a goofy man named Carlo (Mischa Auer), who is perfectly happy to humiliate himself attempting to play the piano or even hopping around the house like a gorilla in exchange for all the food he eats. In the background is Irene's father Alexander (Eugene Pallette), a grumpy family man who is disgusted by the way his wife and daughters act, but is putting on a front of his own. Godfrey's only guidance is the family's long-suffering maid Molly (Jean Dixon), who helpfully places Godfrey's things at the front door as he walks upstairs for his first task.
All of this is executed quite nicely. Director Gregory La Cava orchestrates the storm of madness inside the house as simply as possible, allowing the characters to fill the space, and every one of the cast members is perfectly suited to their role. Powell's deadpan acceptance of everyone's eccentricities is a fine comic concoction, whether it's Irene's starry-eyed infatuation (best moment: a scene where Irene pretends to be asleep that turns not one, not two, but three comic corners) or Cornelia's repeated attempts to get a rise out of him (I like the way Powell tries to remain focused on the lampshades).
What doesn't necessarily work so well -- minor spoilers ahead! -- is the truth about Godfrey's identity. At one of the family's fancy parties, Godfrey runs into Tommy Gray (Alan Mowbray), an old acquaintance from Godfrey's hometown. The truth is that Godfrey is a rich man who gave his wealth up in frustration, to see how the other side lives, and while that sounds noble in theory, when it's all over, he's happy to pack up his things and return right back to the life he had before, even if he does help people along the way. Although the film suggests Godfrey learns something about how to treat others, in the end, living in a landfill and learning to wait on others is little more than a wealthy guy's idea of a vacation. My Man Godfrey remains enjoyable as a farce, but as a character redemption story, it might be a little out of date.
Like Charade, this DVD of My Man Godfrey is the first for Universal, who happily licensed it to The Criterion Collection without ever releasing their own version. As with all of their "100th Anniversary" titles, what we get here is a standard DVD case inside a very nice glossy foil slipcover, featuring banners trumpeting the studio's celebration, and a flap that opens to reveal the original theatrical poster, some facts about the studio from the year the picture was made, some facts about the film itself, and the film placed along a timeline of the studio's releases. The actual art inside the case features the same image on the front (of Powell and Lombard looking at each other in very different ways) minus the "anniversary" branding. Inside the case, there is a small flyer with information about Universal's centennial and a code you can put in online to try win a million bucks. Unlike Charade, however, My Man Godfrey does not include a digital copy.
The Video and Audio
I believe Universal borrowed Criterion's sparkling HD master of Charade for their DVD release, which looked fantastic. However, since My Man Godfrey has yet to be issued on Blu-Ray by Criterion, Universal turned to the UCLA Film Archives for this disc. As I own the Criterion edition of Godfrey, I threw both in the computer and played a few minutes of both discs side-by-side for comparison. Although the difference is fairly minor, I have to say, the older Criterion disc beats this 1.33:1 full frame presentation. Universal's Blu-Ray transfers have frequently been plagued with DNR, and although the grain structure looks a little harsh on CC's DVD, the grain indeed disappears on the Universal presentation, along with some of the detail -- the material of Irene's dress at the beginning, for instance, is resolved on the CC and blobby and less distinct on the Universal. The new disc also looks slightly darker, and although the two transfers share some of the same defects (like damage to the right side of the print during the opening scene at the dump), I think I saw a few more nicks and scratches on the UCLA print. Does the film look bad? No, this is undoubtedly leagues better than the lesser public domain efforts floating around out there. Still, it's a shame that this is a step down from an 11-year-old edition of the film on the same format.
Comparatively, the two Dolby Digital 2.0 mono tracks sounded pretty much the same to me. Neither track is quite as clear as I might like, with a slightly muddy quality that removes the snap from a few of the lines. Still, it's the machine-gun speed of the dialogue that's more likely to confound viewers than the quality of the audio. Beyond that, this is a film that takes place almost exclusively indoors, and mostly in large rooms containing less than four people, so it's not a particularly complex aural challenge either way. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and French and Spanish subtitles are also provided.
As with Charade -- are you tired of hearing about that disc yet? -- Universal has elected not to include any sort of film-specific extras on this DVD. Not surprising, given the Criterion -- another disc you may be sick of by now -- has a commentary, outtakes, a radio adaptation, production stills, and the trailer (the latter of which is even absent here). Instead, the same two glossy, promotional, and woefully short features are included here: "100 Years of Universal: The Carl Laemmle Era" (8:43) and "100 Years of Universal: The Lew Wasserman Era" (8:51).
Universal's DVD of My Man Godfrey looks and sounds decent, but the difference in video quality and complete lack of film-specific extras put this behind the Criterion release for collectors and leaves it as sort of a toss-up when compared to any quality public domain releases of the film (although I can't comment on Legend Films' release of My Man Godfrey specifically, their black-and-white presentation of Night of the Living Dead looked good, and you got a colorized version of the film to boot), which are likely to be less expensive (as non-new releases by a non-major studio). Rent it.