by Richard R.D. Finch
“All you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people,” millionaire Alexander Bullock (Eugene Pallette) remarks to a friend near the beginning of My Man Godfrey. For the next hour and a half the movie sets out to illustrate that quip, using Bullock’s two daughters, his wife, and their social set as its prime examples. As hard as he tries, Alexander Bullock isn’t ever able to introduce any sanity into his eccentric family, but a mystery man played by William Powell is. Powell is Godfrey Smith, a homeless man living in a packing box at the city dump who is claimed by both Bullock daughters, Cornelia (Gail Patrick) and Irene (Carole Lombard), in the film’s famous opening, where the two are competing for the last item they need to win a society scavenger hunt—a real Forgotten Man. Godfrey doesn’t respond to the imperious Cornelia, but he does take an immediate liking to her sweet, slightly ditzy younger sister and allows himself to be claimed by her. Irene, elated at besting her domineering sister for once, in turn takes such a shine to Godfrey that she impulsively hires him as the new family butler. For the rest of the movie we follow along as Godfrey becomes embroiled in the antics of this nutty family that practically embodies the expression “the idle rich.”
One of the reasons for the popularity in the 1930s of American screwball comedies like Godfrey was the way these movies made fun of such people. While getting an eyeful of the lavish lives of the rich, audiences of the day could at the same time laugh at their idiotic behavior and their obliviousness of the economic hardships of the Depression. Many screwball comedies went no further than using the foibles of the rich as comic fodder, but some showed a genuine sense of social awareness and used their seemingly frivolous plots as pointed commentary on the huge socioeconomic divide between the rich and the rest of the population. The opening moments of Godfrey show clearly that this is one of the socially aware screwball comedies: The camera slowly sweeps across a painted version of the New York skyline done in Art Deco style as the credits light up on the sides of buildings, until it finally stops at the Queensboro Bridge, where looming in the shadows in the foreground at the foot of the bridge is the squalor of the city dump, a homeless encampment, and the stylized painted image fades into the real thing. This is where Godfrey Smith lives.
Even so, Godfrey doesn’t bludgeon the audience with its social commentary the way a Capra movie can. It keeps its view of the social and economic ills of the time and the insularity of the rich on a satirical level. These people aren’t intentionally malevolent so much as ignorant of the problems faced by those whose lives are less privileged than their own. Rather than promoting Capraesque populism, the film is actually rather conservative in its attitudes. Godfrey’s prescription for the problems of people like himself is simple and capitalistic and squarely on the side of the work ethic. “The only difference between a derelict and a man,” he says at one point, “is a job.” And he uses the serendipitous outcome of an attempt by Cornelia to frame him for stealing a pearl necklace to ensure that his homeless friends at the dump get the jobs that will reintegrate them with society. If Godfrey has a serious point to make, it’s that the rich must do more than spend their money to keep themselves entertained; they have a social obligation to invest their money in ways that create jobs, as Godfrey does with his windfall.
In the end, however, it is the film’s vivid and eccentric characters that really stand out against this ground of social awareness. Gruff Eugene Pallette has never been better than as the harried nominal head of the Bullock family. “I sometimes wonder whether my whole family has gone mad or it’s me,” he complains to Godfrey in that distinctive gravel voice. His wife (Alice Brady) is the ultimate self-centered scatterbrain, a woman who drives her husband to the verge of derangement with her fawning on her Pekingese and on her “protégé” Carlo (Mischa Auer), a sycophantic musician whose patron she has become. Elder daughter Cornelia, predatory and egotistical in an almost feline way, quickly extends the antagonism of her obsessive sibling rivalry with Irene to Godfrey—she has never gotten over being rejected by him at the scavenger hunt in favor of Irene—and does everything she can to drive him out of the family.
The film’s main focus within the Bullock family is, of course, Irene, played by the incomparable Carole Lombard. The gentle, good-natured Irene is nothing like her sister. As the Bullocks’ maid tells Godfrey his first day on the job, “She’s not as violent [as Cornelia] but she’s more insidious.” With her rushed, slightly breathless delivery and habit of conversing in non sequiturs, Lombard makes Irene the kind of woman whose fey charm would get under your skin. At first the attachment she develops to Godfrey seems the kind of fondness a lonely, sensitive child might have for a pet. When Irene impetuously kisses Godfrey about half an hour into the film, it’s plain that her childish affection for him is developing into mature love. It’s equally plain that a number of obstacles stand in the way of any romance, including the machinations of the jealous Cornelia, an eminently unsuitable fiancé (Grady Sutton no less), and Godfrey’s own strange reluctance to be anything more than Irene’s avuncular protector.
William Powell is equally marvelous as Godfrey, one of those wily servants in the tradition of Figaro and Jeeves who are constantly outwitting their aristocratic masters. The difference here is that, as we learn well into the film, Godfrey is himself a fallen aristocrat. Powell always had the ability to project a combination of worldly sophistication and more down-to-earth qualities. Here we see Godfrey’s urbanity in his scenes in the Bullock household, where he maintains a facade of formality and emotional reserve. We see his more demotic qualities in the way he relates to his fellow homeless at the dump and to an old friend from better days whom he accidentally runs across (Alan Mowbray, who is quite good). In psychological terms, this divide between the two sides of Godfrey’s personality is the chief problem he faces in the film, and the account of how this situation came about explains his reticence toward Irene when she throws herself at him. Briefly, Godfrey’s fall from his former circumstances is the result of an unfortunate love affair that caused him to give up on love and nearly to give up on life itself.
In many ways My Man Godfrey can be viewed as an updated fairy tale set against a background of social satire. A royal family isolated in their castle, a king at the end of his tether, a loopy queen under the influence of an evil minstrel, a wicked elder daughter victimizing a naive younger one, a wandering prince disguised as a peasant—you can almost picture the people in the film as characters in a fairy tale by Charles Perrault. As with most fairy tales, My Man Godfrey is a story of transformation. The transformative force here is Godfrey himself, who by the end of the film manages to humanize these inhumane people living in their bubble world.
The most important transformation, though, is the one Godfrey effects on Irene and himself. Through circumstances out of their control, Godfrey and Irene both have developed off-center personalities. In coming together, each restores balance to the other’s personality. She warms him up; he cools her down. She returns him to emotional life and helps him regain his humanity. He brings her down to Earth and helps her discover her own dormant humanity. As in most fairy tales, My Man Godfrey is also a tale of rescue. Irene rescues Godfrey from pessimism and despair. He rescues her from a future as a vapid, self-absorbed nitwit like her mother. His wisdom and her innocence unite to make them two complementary halves of a couple. And what a charming and beautiful couple they are.
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8 Jason Marshall