Wednesday, August 8, 2012

My Man Godfrey (1936)

Universal Pictures
Director: Gregory La Cava
Starring: William Powell, Carole Lombard

National Film Resgistry
#44 on AFI Top 100 Laughs (2000)

During the years of the Great Depression where separation between the wealthy and downtrodden became a little bit wider, a time when many men still felt the heartbreak of how it was to lose most of their money Universal releases a picture that mocks society with a story of a homeless man with more charm, intelligence and civility than the upper-class family that comes to know him. My Man Godfrey is a screwball comedy  starring former real life husband and wife William Powell and Carol Lombard in an offbeat love story between two very unlikely people, both proving to be the opposite of stereotypes they are originally introduced as being. In the end the film is not about social matters, but rather a humorous story meant to simply entertain as a cheerful comedy.

My Man Godfrey is a screwball comedy about a homeless man hired as a butler by a woman who comes to fall in love with him, to his dismay. During an evening of upper-class entertainment a spoiled young lady, Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard), hires a well-spoken destitute named Godfrey (William Powell) to complete a senseless scavenger hunt as her “forgotten man” to defeat her even more spoiled socialite of a sister Cornelia (Gail Patrick) in the pointless competition. In a sense of intrigue to this mysterious man and his intelligent ways, Irene hires Godfrey in her own self-righteous sense of duty, but also out of curiosity as she finds him attractively peculiar. As she falls in love with him, to his apprehension, we discover that Godfrey was once a very successful man in his past, and through his own cunning turns a situation that could be devastating for him into an opportunity. Eventual Godfrey overcomes the ridicule of this goofy, well-off family turning himself once again into a successful businessman , leaving the post as butler, but not before Irene makes sure to tether herself to him as his future wife as a final joke unto the picture.

An entertaining film with quick wit and a sharp tongue to poke fun at the socially inconsiderate upper classed lifestyle, My Man Godfrey makes for a feature that would appeal more to the middle to lower class audience. The hero, Godfrey, is a well-spoken, intelligent chap who is quick to point out the flaws of all those that play so openly with their money while there are many people in the world just outside their front door that scrap by on the streets for even a shred of nourishment. The well off Bullock family, for whom Godfrey is hired to serve, is a madcap buffoonish group with little direction, easy targets to the well placed verbal jabs of William Powell. Beside its small social commentary, the film is pure comedy meant simply to entertain with superior verbal jokes that would have audiences laughing.

To direct this silly comedy is long time man of the film business Gregory La Cava. Not exactly a name many would notice, La Cava was a filmmaker that started as an animator for William Randolph Hearst’s early studio of the 1910s before moving on to working in live action comedy shorts. Through time he would contribute to many shorts and features both as a director and part- time uncredited writer. Here with the successfully hilarious comedy feature of My Man Godfrey starring two well known stars of the business in Powell and Lombard La Cava would get a nomination for best director at the Academy Awards, effectively establishing a unprecedented new peak in his career.

Star William Powell was a very busy actor in 1936. Already a well established star in his own right, as a man of quick wit and great charisma, Powell had already appeared in the hugely successful film The Great Ziegfeld, and was working on a sequel to his previous comedy The Thin Man in the aptly titled feature After the Thin Man. On top of that he would soon have another successful comedy to hit theaters with the release of Libeled Lady. La Cava worked very hard to get Powell onboard for this project, working out a deal for Universal to have him lent from his home studio of MGM. Part of the deal included that he requested his ex-wife Carol Lombard play the role of Irene. Despite being divorced for three years Powell and Lombard remained good friends and created good on-screen chemistry together, here with Powell as the cunning gentleman and Lombard as the dramatic, spoiled girl. With all that history together the two play well together and help to make you believe that someone as foolish as Irene could fall in love with such an intelligent man as Godfrey, who feels a sense of protection over the young lady even though he continually puts her down in his kind way. It is a funny pairing, even more so with their past history in mind.

To complete the remainder of the spoiled Bullock family is Eugene Pallette as the patriarch Alexander, Alice Brady as the mother Angelica, and Gail Patrick as the primary antagonist, Irene’s older sister Cornelia. Patrick plays well the archetype you root against, as the villainous rival to the story’s leading lady, a character type she would embrace much of her career.  Both Pallette and Brady would be long time veterans to the role of comedic side characters, Brady as the near clueless mother, and Pallette as the husband that sees the overall silliness, but feels helpless to do anything about his family and roots for Godfrey’s success of emancipating himself from the job as their butler. Aside from the direct family is the comedic relief from the performance of the overly dramatic Carlo, "protégé"of the mother Angelica, played by Mischa Auer. Carlo would be everything Godfrey was not, a mooching woe-is-me gentleman with no discernible skill, much like the rest of the family. It makes for a wonderful mix of characters, perfect for setting up all kinds of humor at the hands of Powell.

My Man Godfrey would be a modest production embraced audiences and critics. The picture would be nominated for six Academy Awards that year, all for the major awards of best director (La Cava), actor (Powell), actress (Lombard), adapted screenplay, supporting actor (Auer), and supporting actress (Brady). The supporting cast awards were new to the Oscars that years, but even with all these meaningful nominations to the film’s credit it was not nominated for best picture, nor did it win any statues.

The picture would continue to be held in high regarded as years have gone by. In 1999 the picture would be elected to the National Film Registry as “culturally significant” as an American film. The following year, in 2000, the American Film Institute would place the feature on its list of top comedies of all time, insertion it 44th on their list. A feature which can still play significance in humor while poking fun at society of upper class society, My Man Godfrey continues to be entertaining for audiences for many looking for a good laugh.

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