Film Review: My Man Godfrey

I hope you haven’t had a complete bellyful of the Oscars just yet because I’ve got one more little fact I’d like to share with you which I stumbled upon while reading up for this review. It’s no game changer and nothing that’ll have you losing sleep so don’t worry but, here goes – The 9th Academy Awards ceremony which was held in March 1937 was the first time that supporting actors and actresses had their own categories. Prior to this, all lead and supporting acting nominations were pitched together. There you go. Well, I did say it wasn’t going to change your life!

The reason I inflict this snippet of info upon you is because My Man Godfrey was the first film in Oscar history to receive nominations in all four acting categories. Of course, one could argue that it would have been impossible for an earlier film to have beaten it but that would just be facetious. Fact is, it might not have happened for years. That it didn’t win any of them also makes history because it’s the only film to receive these four nominations and not win at least one. And as if that isn’t enough, it’s also the only film to have these four nominations and not have the Best Picture nomination as well. It was nominated for Best Director and Best Writing, Screenplay as well and, not winning anything there either, means it also goes down in history as the only film to be nominated for those six and to lose them all. And they say it’s just the winners that are remembered. Poppycock!

Anyhoo, I forget why this title came to me but, a few days ago, come to me it did and with my mood suited for an early screwball comedy, I thought I’d give it a look and see what all the fuss is about, of which there seems to be plenty.

The film is interesting for a number of reasons, not least because it teamed William Powell and Carole Lombard who had three years previously been husband and wife. Powell had apparently insisted on his ex-wife being his co-star saying that their real life romance had been similar as it was for their characters in the film. They had starred together twice before in 1931, Man of the World (where they met and soon married) and Ladies’ Man.

It’s also interesting because although it’s classed as one of the great screwball comedies, I found it less screwball than a lot of others from the era. Yes, Lombard is completely in the zone as the zany, young, spoiled heiress and Powell plays the straight man against her with aplomb but it’s the movie’s theme that raises it above the multitude and saves it from just being fun but daft. This film is set (and was made) during The Great Depression and as its story unfolds we receive its serious and rational and socially aware message. It turns out that not only is this movie hilarious on the surface both visually and with its sparkling dialogue but it’s rather clever under the skin as well.

The film opens with Godfrey Parke (Powell) living on a city dump alongside other men who are finding life tough. Actually, the film opens with some lovely opening credits, the titles zapping up in gaudy neon signs stretched across a city roofscape as the camera pans right. Back to the dump though and spoiled rich girl Cornelia Bullock (Gail Patrick) climbs out of her limousine and offers him five dollars to be her “forgotten man” at a scavenger hunt. Annoyed that the wealthy find amusement in the plight of the needy and the homeless, Godfrey tells her where to go and in doing so causes her to fall on a pile of ashes. She leaves in a fury with her chaperone much to the delight of her younger sister, Irene (Lombard) whom also wants a “forgotten man”. Godfrey talks to Irene and finds her to be a nicer person than her sister and offers to help her so she can beat her sister.

They arrive at the swanky hotel ballroom where the scavenger hunt is taking place and, after proving to the judges that he is a bonafide homeless man by answering their inane questions, he addresses the crowd and condemns their pointless game. Irene, realising she has hurt his pride, offers him a job as their family butler.

And there, in a nutshell, you have it; the foundation of a wonderful plot.

Godfrey’s first morning, he turns up all suited and booted and is welcomed by the Bullocks’ smart-mouthed, cynical maid, Molly (Jean Dixon). Molly is the only servant who has been able to put up with the bizarre antics of the family, antics which quickly become apparent to Godfrey once he calls on each family member with their breakfast tray. Luckily though, he appears to be a gifted butler and so all the family, especially Irene, who appears to be besotted with him, is glad to have him around. All except Cornelia whom he made fall into the ash pile. She has a grudge that simply won’t be buried.

And so, as the plot thickens, to coin an overused phrase, we learn more about this man Godfrey and we discover, after a friend from his past pops up, that he’s not what we first assumed. The socio-economic hardship of the time also plays its part almost as a character and as such, it’s influence is never far from the screen. Overall, My Man Godfrey is an extremely engaging film but impossibly lighthearted too.

As is so often the case with these classics, the cast is without fault. Gail Patrick as the sister, Alice Brady as the mother and Eugene Pallette as the father are nothing short of wonderful, as is Jean Dixon who plays the maid. Mischa Auer as Mrs Bullock’s sponging and constantly hungry “protege” is ideally cast too. But it’s Powell’s and ultimately Lombard’s show and with Lombard’s life being cut tragically short when she perished in a plane crash in 1942, it leaves one wondering just how much more she might have left for us. Having said that, it makes me want to celebrate all that she did leave for she was, without question, a unique talent.

My Man Godfrey was directed by Gregory La Cava, a former animator for William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers who had begun directing silent comedies in the early ’20s. Although this is arguably his best known work he had a reasonable success the following year with Stage Door, starring Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers.

My Man Godfrey was adapted from the short novel, 1101 Park Avenue, by Eric Hatch and was a huge hit upon release in September 1936. In 1999, it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry as being “culturally significant” by the United States Library of Congress. It frequently turns up in Top 100 lists as the greatest this or that too and having finally watched it, it’s easy to see why.

For me, it’s simply a flawless gem from Hollywood’s past. Although, I think perhaps I should say, another flawless gem, because as I continue to write these reviews for The Daily Opinion, I continue to discover amazing movies from yesteryear. Some are well-known and respected while others are often overlooked but either way, my joy is in finding them.