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My Man Godfrey

My Man Godfrey
1936 / b&w / 1:37 / 94m. / Street Date July 31, 2001 / 39.95
Starring William Powell, Carole Lombard, Alice Brady, Gail Patrick, Eugene Pallette, Alan Mowbray, Jean Dixon, Mischa Auer
Cinematography Ted Tetzlaff
Film Editors Ted Kent, Russell Schoengarth
Original Music Charles Previn
Writing credits Morrie Ryskind, Eric Hatch from a novel by Eric Hatch
Produced by Gregory La Cava, Charles R. Rogers
Directed by Gregory La Cava

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.

(mild spoilers)

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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
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

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