Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 13, 2018)
Audiences love to see the little guy prevail while the “high and mighty” take one on the chin, and I’m sure those preferences seemed even stronger during the 1930s. In the grips of the Depression, there were a lot more little guys than usual, and though many rich folks also suffered, the disparity between the haves and the have-nots seemed greater than ever.
Within that context, a film such as 1936’s My Man Godfrey makes a good deal of sense. It shows the poor - as represented by homeless “forgotten men” - to be virtuous, thoughtful and caring, whereas the rich seem to be frivolous, self-absorbed and inane. It seems logical that Depression-era crowds would eat up this sort of material.
However, I don’t want to pigeonhole Godfrey as a period piece with no appeal outside of its era. While the time in which it was made clearly impacted the production, the movie remains a charming and entertaining program that offers solid material that neatly transcends chronological barriers.
At the start of Godfrey, a few wealthy Manhattan socialites descend on a local dump to fulfill the requirements of a “Scavenger Hunt”. This game requires them to find a number of items that people don’t want, and one of the objects is to grab a “forgotten man”, the film’s term for “homeless guy”.
Cornelia (Gail Patrick) offers Godfrey (William Powell) $5 to come with her. Down on his luck but not without pride, Godfrey refuses due to her rudeness, and his indirect intimidation causes Cornelia to fall in the dump.
Cornelia’s somewhat ditzy younger sister Irene (Carole Lombard) comes to realize ever-so-slightly that this was a dehumanizing experience, and she relates this to Godfrey. Once she explains the game to him, he agrees to come with her just to show up Cornelia, as if Irene will win the contest if she brings in the first forgotten man.
That she does, and after she wins, she offers him a job as the Bullock butler. He accepts, although he quickly learns that this may be a rather challenging task.
That’s because the Bullocks present a rather dysfunctional family, albeit in a zany way. Mother Angelica (Alice Brady) is a motor-mouthed and flighty broad whose main interest is in her “protégé” Carlo (Misha Auer). He’s allegedly a musical prodigy, but his only apparent talent revolves around his prodigious eating abilities.
Cornelia is a haughty brat, and Irene is a dippy girl who’s less domineering than Cornelia but she seems spoiled in many others ways. The only fairly normal member of the household is father Alexander (Eugene Pallette), the gruff presence who has had to put up with his family's shenanigans for many moons.
Although maid Molly (Jean Dixon) doesn’t expect him to last long in the position, Godfrey quickly becomes a positive influence in the Bullock household, though some parties are more receptive to his presence than others. Cornelia maintains an antagonistic attitude toward him, partially fuelled by Irene’s obvious affection for him.
At its heart, Godfrey offers a romantic comedy, though we’re not always sure which Bullock daughter will win his heart. While Irene shows the most overt interest in Godfrey, a subtext in which Cornelia also desires him seems apparent.
Anyway, the movie mainly follows Irene’s attempts to ensnare Godfrey’s affections, though it has a few mystery elements along the way. That’s because we don’t learn much about Godfrey’s past, so we find out the circumstances that brought Godfrey to the level of “forgotten man”.
Earlier I indicated that I felt Godfrey glorified the noble poor while it mocked the idle rich. Although those sentiments ring true, I shouldn’t lead you to believe that the film totally disparages the wealthy.
Many of the “forgotten men” came from the ranks of the formerly-prosperous, and some ended up at the dump due to dignified intentions. For example, one of the guys owned a bank, and when it failed, he paid the depositors out of his own pocket rather than see them suffer.
As such, Godfrey relates that the rich are human, but they need some harsh circumstances to make them appreciate what they have - or had, as the case may be. I won’t go into the details of how Godfrey ended up on the dump, but suffice it to say that his origins fit into this model.
Even if one doesn’t dwell upon the film’s social commentary, it offers an entertaining and witty experience. As is the case with most comedies, Godfrey works largely due to the talents of its cast.
Obviously this kind of movie also needs crisp writing and swift direction, but I feel that comedies depend on their actors more so than any other kind of film. If one performer is great, they can be wholly entertaining despite a myriad of other cinematic flaws.
Godfrey doesn’t suffer from those concerns, but the talented actors help take it to another level. As the lead, Powell displays appropriate charm and elegance and he functions as the appropriately calm center amidst all of the goofiness that surrounds him.
Powell functions as a solid straight man, and he helps make Godfrey believable and likable despite some characteristics that could have seemed self-righteous.
Powell and Lombard show a fine chemistry, probably because they’d known each other for many years. Heck, the two had even been married at one point. As Irene, Lombard seems appropriately zany and off-kilter, but she still lets us see the character as a caring and warm person despite some stereotypical “dumb blonde” traits.
The film’s supporting cast are equally good, if not better, and I really like Brady’s turn as the babbling mother. She doesn’t need to show the human restraint found in Irene, so she can make the role a wild loon who delivers consistent entertainment.
Auer also becomes delightful as the “tortured artiste” who’s really nothing more than a loafer and a leach. His impersonation of a gorilla offers one of the movie’s comic highlights.
My Man Godfrey suffers from an awkward and forced ending, but otherwise it delivers a fun and frisky little comedy. The film’s roots in the Depression era seem clear, but it diesn’t feel like a relic of the past. Instead, the movie offers an enjoyably light and witty experience that holds up well over the last 82 years.