Director: Gregory La Cava
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 gulf between the rich and the rest of the population. The opening moments of Godfrey show clearly that this is a screwball comedy with a social conscience: 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.
|Godfrey Smith (William Powell, right) at home at the dump|
In the end, however, it is the film's vivid, 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 Angelica (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" (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.
|Eugene Pallette and Alice Brady as Alexander and Angelica Bullock|
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 outside their control, Godfrey and Irene both have developed off-center personalities. In coming together, each restores balance to the other. 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.
This post was written as part of the ongoing Comedy Countdown at Wonders in the Dark, where My Man Godfrey came in at #20. Be sure to check out all the great films being covered in the countdown, which runs through late December.