20th Sep2018

‘My Man Godfrey’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Carole Lombard, William Powell, Gail Patrick, Eugene Pallette, Alice Brady | Written by Eric Hatch, Morrie Ryskind | Directed by Gregory La Cava

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The fate of the stars of this socially-conscious screwball comedy, directed by former animator Gregory La Cava in 1936, couldn’t be more different. Carole Lombard was cruelly cut off in her prime, dying in a plane crash at the age of 33, while William Powell led a remarkably long life, marrying three times and beating cancer, before passing in 1984.

They show great chemistry in La Cava’s darkly comic fable. The rich WASPs of New York engage in a “Scavenger Hunt”, getting wasted and hunting down things no one else wants. This includes Godfrey (Powell), a homeless man living on a trash heap. He spurns the condescending Cornelia Bullock (Gail Patrick), but when her sister Irene (Lombard) takes an interest, he lets her take him back to the party, winning her the game. Irene decides to employ Godfrey as her butler (this is not a film that modern audiences will find terribly relatable), and he scrubs up pretty well, so she falls for him immediately. Not that he’s feeling terribly grateful – the Bullocks are a family in chaos. They’re constantly bickering and, in their ivory tower and in their socialite cliques, totally out of touch with the world.

Godfrey is up against it. Irene is devastated by his reluctance to enter into a relationship with her. Mean-tempered Cornelia vows to get revenge on him for his initial spurning. The mother (Alice Brady) is a mad woman with a toy boy named Carlo (Mischa Auer). And Mr Bullock (Eugene Pallette) detached from the end of his tether long ago. Can Godfrey’s presence bring harmony to the Bullock household? Can he overcome the dark secrets of his past and allow himself a happy future with Irene?

Domineering as they are, all the women in the story are emotional wrecks or viciously conniving. In the face of this, Mr Bullock is belligerent but powerless, lamenting their behaviour and their spending. “What this family needs is discipline!” he cries, impotently. Perennially hungover, his wife could be a forebear of Absolutely Fabulous’s Edina.

Irene, meanwhile, is something of a tomboy, although not much more appealing than her kin. She’s something of a petulant child, slouching and whining and rocking on her heels; a spoiled brat, throwing a tantrum when she believes she can’t sponsor Godfrey. Regardless of the actors’ chemistry, there’s no compelling reason for Godfrey and Irene to be together. He’s desperate to find peace and she’s moping around for two thirds of the movie.

Irene’s seduction is pure proto-romcom, by which I mean creepy and manipulative, and espousing the notion that persistence – rather than, say, compatibility – should be the deciding factor. She won’t take no for an answer and he’s bound to give in. Not only that, but she believes that Godfrey will sweep her into the clouds on a chariot – a wish that rather flies in the face of the central point about getting in touch with the reality of the world.

It’s in the title character himself where the film’s moralising comes. Godfrey gave up his life in Boston and became a down-and-out in New York. He considered suicide but was rescued by the brotherhood of the homeless. He had it all, then nothing; now he has it all again. As a central premise it’s strong: he’s well-positioned to judge the complacency of the Bullocks.

It’s just about possible to swallow the idea that the Bullock family would be surprised that the erudite Godfrey is the product of higher education. It’s less easy to accept Godfrey’s conclusions about the way society works: “The only difference between a derelict and man is a job,” he opines. It’s a simplistic message which elides the fact that Godfrey got his opportunity thanks to education, experience, keen social skills, and no little luck. And don’t get me started on the gentrification-fixes-everything epilogue.

The dialogue is snappy, but the broader humour has dated terribly. The cringeworthy spectacle of Carlo – tiresome comic relief throughout – hopping around pretending to be a gorilla seems to go on forever. Indeed, the comedy is the film’s weakest element. Had it been made twenty years later, with a more sophisticated script, I wonder if it could have worked better as a straightforward social drama. As it happens, it was remade in 1957, except as a comedy once again.

My Man Godfrey is a solid and easy watch, but far from ideal for newcomers to the screwball genre. Its central relationship is too unconvincing to satisfy the “rom”, and the “com” falls consistently short. Its heart is in the right place, for sure, but its perspective on the haves and have-nots is even less nuanced than James Cameron’s Titanic. There’s charm here, but precious little truth.

Extras:

  • 2018 programme in which author Gary Giddins discusses the film.
  • Lux Radio Theatre adaptation from 1938
  • Some surprisingly amusing and risqué outtakes
  • 2018 interview with critic Nick Pinkerton, discussing director La Cava
  • 1930s newsreels concerning the poverty of the time
  • Trailer

My Man Godfrey is out on Criterion Blu-ray from 17 September 2018.

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