Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Film Review: My Man Godfrey (1936)

Ditsy socialite Carole Lombard falls in love with her butler,
William Powell,who tries to maintain a professional distance
When composing my top 10 movies from 1930-1938, I was extremely reluctant to exclude this gem of a comedy starring William Powell and Carole Lombard. If I had to include only one William Powell comedy from the '30s, I would probably have to choose The Thin Man, but My Man Godfrey would certainly run it a close second. Based on the novel 1101 Park Avenue, the film takes its title from a parody of P.G. Wodehouse's first Jeeves and Wooster book, My Man Jeeves. Even though that famous character was a valet not a butler, to ignorant Americans he was still considered the model butler figure, and thus the title perfectly indicated the theme of the movie.

The story centers on Godfrey Park, a stockbroker who lost all his money in the crash by trying to ensure his clients didn't. Flash forward several years, and Godfrey is a jaded derelict living in a shanty town on the East River. When socialite Cornelia Bullock appears offering to pay Godfrey to be a "forgotten man" for a scavenger hunt, Godfrey tells her off and pushes her into an ash pile. Cornelia's younger sister Irene witnesses the scene, and immediately develops an admiration for Godfrey because he gave her spoiled sister what she deserved. Despite being slightly dim-witted, Irene has a good heart, and Godfrey decides to help her humiliate Cornelia once again by becoming Irene's forgotten man to help her win the scavenger hunt. Unfortunately the scavenger hunt committee humiliate Godfrey before they give Irene the prize, and Irene feels so horrible about the situation that she offers Godfrey a job as her family's butler.

When Godfrey shows up the next morning to take the job, he quickly learns why butlers in the Bullock house don't usually last more than a day. Between Cornelia's shrill demands and the insanity of Mrs. Bullock, her protegee Carlo, and Irene, Godfrey has quite the balancing act to maintain. Not only that, but Cornelia has it out for Godfrey after her double humiliation at his hands, and Godfrey must steer clear of her while fending off unwanted romantic attentions from Irene. This all makes for some spectacular comedic situations, including a particularly difficult afternoon which induces Godfrey to get drunk even though he still has his duties to perform.

Perhaps what elevates this film beyond most screwball comedies of its era, however, is the conscience displayed by Godfrey and the spirit to carry on which so defined the '30s. Even though he's been handed a rough lot, Godfrey is eager to find a way to make it through, even if it means becoming a servant to the class to which he once belonged. Godfrey turns out to be the guardian angel both for the Bullocks and his jobless friends living in the slums. He executes plans that save the Bullocks from the brink of financial ruin and provide jobs for some of the countless good men left unemployed by the rocky economy. When he finally leaves the Bullocks' service in the end, we tear up just as they do for the loss of an exceptional man, even though Godfrey is moving on to bigger and better things.

Although all the actors in this film play their parts perfectly, it's William Powell and Carole Lombard that steal the show. One of the most talented actors of his day, Powell effortlessly portrays the complex character of Godfrey park, sometimes cynical, sometimes idealistic, mostly kind but with small tolerance for spoiled brats and prolonged stupidity. Carole Lombard is a mesmerizing dumb blonde, spewing out non-sequitur after non-sequitur at 120mph until our brains become milkshakes. 

I rate this movie a solid 9 out of 10, one of the best comedies ever made.

My Man Godfrey - Criterion Collection (buy it on DVD)

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