MY MAN GODFREY (Gregory La Cava, 1936)

A dream of a light satirical, “screwball” comedy, My Man Godfrey opens with a sharp socioeconomic contrast; the camera pans across, in the same crowded neighborhood, skyrises bearing the film’s title and credits in neon lights and the city dump in the dead of night, the site of a Hooverville of the Great Depression’s homeless and unemployed. In effect, in a single movement, the camera takes in dazzle and darkness, extravagance and want, artifice and reality. A scavenger hunt has drawn some of the idle rich, including the socialite Bullock sisters, Irene and Cornelia, to the ash heaps and the hills of vacant cans of the dump; the next “item” on their list of things to find for their little game is a “forgotten man,” and the stench of victory finds the two spoiled young women vying for a derelict named Godfrey. While a polished and elegantly assembled Cornelia dispenses arrogance and condescension, dizzy Irene, who looks like she threw herself together at the last minute, is more circumspect and appealing, and Godfrey, wanting to beat Cornelia at her own game, chooses to go along with Irene. As a result, Irene wins; “Do you buttle?” she asks her “forgotten man,” who takes up her offer of a job, to replace the butler who fled the family’s employment just that morning. Godfrey, we discover, can “buttle” with the best of them. We also discover that underneath their marked differences Godfrey and Irene’s rich, eccentric family are substantially the same: human. The comedy takes a daffy turn to romance, where another “game,” a masquerade, tumbles out.
     Wonderfully scripted by Eric Hatch, on whose novel it is based, Morrie Ryskind, Robert Presnell Sr. and the film’s richly gifted director, Gregory La Cava (whose 1933 Gabriel Over the White House is one of the darkest Depression satires), My Man Godfrey gleams and sparkles—that is, when it isn’t down in the dump, where it exhales the asthmatic breath of hopelessness until the lot is “filled in” with brisk enterprise, the result of a redemptive, progressive project.
     William Powell and Carole Lombard, themselves a couple until their divorce a few years earlier, beautifully play Godfrey and Irene; Powell in particular shines, giving his finest, trickiest and most compelling peformance. In an uproarious supporting role, Mischa Auer provides a parody of social humanity’s Darwinian instinctuality: Carlo is Mother Bullock’s “protégée,” an all-surpassing moocher who entertains the family, while steadily robbing it, by pretending to be a self-scratching gorilla and crouch-jumping from one expensive piece of furniture to the next. How Angelica Bullock (Alice Brady, repeating her 1934 Gay Divorcée performance) eats the whole thing up.

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