“Prosperity is just around the corner.”
By 1936, the screwball comedy genre already had several signature titles to its credit including Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934, Columbia) and Howard Hawks’s Twentieth Century (1934, Columbia). As the preceding production credits would indicate, Columbia had gotten the jump on much of the field and indeed would continue to be a force in screwball comedy. In contrast, Universal was never a player of any great consequence in the genre. In 1936, however, it made its one mark of significance in the field with the release of My Man Godfrey.
My Man Godfrey was based on a novella entitled “1011 Fifth Avenue” written by Eric Hatch, who was a writer for The New Yorker magazine and would later pen the script for 1937’s Topper. Hatch was reportedly pleased with the adaptation of his novella by the film’s director, Gregory La Cava. Indeed the script proved to be a classic of the genre and film audiences of the day responded very positively to the finished product that starred William Powell and Carole Lombard. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences agreed and nominations in all four acting categories were bestowed on the film (William Powell — Best Actor, Carole Lombard — Best Actress, Mischa Auer — Best Supporting Actor, Alice Brady — Best Supporting Actress). It was the first time that that had occurred, but there were no winners.
For many years, My Man Godfrey has languished in the public domain, presumably due to some oversight on Universal’s part, so that home video versions have been pretty shoddy-looking. Now, however, Criterion has rectified the situation with a fine-looking special edition of the title recently released on DVD.
Godfrey Parke, son of a wealthy old Boston family, has fallen on hard times due to romantic troubles. Now living in a shanty town by the river in New York, Parke encounters two sisters engaged in a scavenger hunt, a pastime game of the idle rich. Both are seeking a forgotten man whom they can bring to the hunt’s organizing headquarters and then claim victory in the game. Godfrey rebuffs one of the sisters, Cornelia, but agrees to accompany the other, Irene.
Partly out of gratitude but partly also due to romantic interest, Irene persuades Godfrey to assume the job of butler at the family home — a job that has been virtually impossible to keep filled due to the zany behaviour of the Bullock family members. They include the mother, Angelica, who appears to be a complete scatterbrain and who persists in having Carlo, a music composer, as a protégé (read: gigolo) living in the home; the two sisters who are constantly at odds; and the long-suffering father, Alexander, who sees his money being frittered away by the rest of the family.
Godfrey proves to be more than a match for the Bullocks and he soon starts to solve many of the family’s problems which in turn leads Godfrey himself onto the road to recovery.
The first thing that strikes you about this film is the opening credit sequence. We are presented with a modernistic cityscape on which are mounted neon signs that flash the names of cast and crew as the camera pans across it. It’s a sequence that suggests luxury and prosperity, but then the lights disappear and the camera continues to move until it settles on what appears to be an unlit shack amid a mound of earth. At this point, the film begins and the shack is revealed to be the home of but one of many down-and-out men who live in a dump by the river. As the film progresses, we will switch back and forth between the darkness and dreariness of the dump and the brightness and luxury of the upper class at play several times before the former becomes transformed into the latter (rather incredibly, as you will see if you watch the film).
The sequences that begin My Man Godfrey focus on a game — a scavenger hunt that fills the time of the idle rich. Soon, however, we realize that games will be the focus of the entire film. In fact, every relationship seems to be a game: Irene and Cornelia; Irene and Godfrey; Cornelia and Godfrey; Alexander Bullock and the rest of his family including his wife’s protégé, Carlo; and the rich and the poor. All of the games are clearly won by the end, except one — that of Irene and Godfrey. Oh, there is a resolution to it, but it implies “less a wedding of hearts and minds than a collapse of resistance on Godfrey’s part.”
Perhaps the best thing about My Man Godfrey is the cast. As Godfrey, William Powell was at the peak of his powers. He had been actively sought for the part by director Gregory La Cava who had agreed to accept Constance Bennett to play Irene only if Powell were borrowed from MGM. Powell liked the idea but only if Carole Lombard played Irene. La Cava was happy with that and so it came to be. Powell wore several days’ growth of beard effectively as a hobo, but his urbanity in the role of butler was more impressive. He delivered a slight tongue-in-cheek performance that seemed just right. Lombard was the crucial performer, however. The role of Irene could easily have just been put across as simply a dizzy, dumb blonde. That would have killed the film, for what would have motivated Godfrey then? There had to be a reason for Godfrey’s attraction to Irene, something behind Irene’s façade that suggested reason or goodness. Lombard, mainly through body language, was able to suggest the depth that was so essential.
Aside from the principals, the supporting cast is extraordinary. Bulky Eugene Pallette with his frog-like voice is perfect as Alexander Bullock as is Alice Brady as his wife Angelica. Both would perform similar parts in numerous other films of the time. Then you’ve got Mischa Auer as the obnoxious Carlo. At one point, he provides an incredible impersonation of an ape while the family looks on in a mixture of awe, fear and incredulity. Auer would later provide a similar portrayal as a music teacher in Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You. Gail Patrick plays Cornelia in one of a series of portraits of disliked women that she seemed to specialize in. Then, there’s the pleasure of an appearance by Franklin Pangborn. Here, he’s the overseer of the scavenger hunt, accepting entries and fussily administering the results. In a modern film, pointing to a single portrayal is often enough to recommend the film. In My Man Godfrey we have an embarrassment of such portrayals, any of which make the film worth seeing, but together make it an absolute must.
Happily, Criterion has made that easy for us with its recent DVD release of the title, once again through an arrangement with Universal. The DVD is a new digital transfer created from a 35mm duplicate negative and presents the film full frame in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 utilizing 21 scene selections. In relative terms, compared to previous video incarnations, the DVD is a revelation of brightness, clarity and contrast. Even in absolute terms, this is a very fine looking image. There are a few instances of softness and loss of shadow detail, but on the whole, the black and white film looks glossy and sharp. Blacks are deep and whites are clean. Edge enhancement is minor to non-existent. The audio is Dolby Digital one-track mono and sounds quite clean, virtually free of age-related hiss or distortion. This DVD possesses image and sound superior to that of The Scarlet Empress, a film of similar vintage also delivered on DVD by Criterion from source material provided by Universal.
The supplement package on the disc is excellent. It begins with a detailed audio commentary by film historian Bob Gilpin. He provides a wealth of analytical and production detail on all aspects of the film in a pleasant, easy-to-listen-to style. This is one of the better commentaries I’ve heard, closely tied in to the on-screen happenings, and highly recommended. Then, there’s a short sequence of outtakes (including suitably profane responses by the actors to their flubs) that is a very valuable addition. I didn’t expect to see something like this for this vintage of film, but I’m sure glad Criterion/Universal was able to unearth it. Following this is the complete 1938 “Lux Radio Theater” broadcast of the script with Powell and Lombard reprising their parts. (Of note is a young David Niven reading the role of Godfrey’s old school friend played in the film by Alan Mowbray. Interestingly, Niven would play the William Powell lead role in a 1957 film remake which is entertaining in its own right but not in the same league as the original My Man Godfrey.) An extensive archive of production stills and the original theatrical trailer round out the disc.
I have elsewhere suggested the classic nature of My Man Godfrey‘s script. Indeed, it is classic in the sense of how well it provides opportunities for the many conventions of the screwball comedy genre. In another sense, however, I would be less than fair if I did not acknowledge that the script is in fact rather pat. Spoiler Alert!! Once Godfrey gets established as the Bullocks’ butler, events seem to fall remarkably well into place for him and for the Bullocks’ fortunes. It is at this point that it is revealed that Godfrey is the heir to a large Boston fortune. This upper class background allows him to work behind the scenes to save the Bullock fortune by some judicious stock market transactions; to build a successful nightclub on the site of the old city dump which provides jobs for his grateful old friends from the dump; and even to rehabilitate the Bullock women from their scatterbrained ways. Godfrey even allows himself to be married to Irene at the end, although there has been no really strong foundation laid by the script that would make such a match the obvious conclusion to the film.
If you haven’t seen My Man Godfrey before, lucky you — you’ve got a real treat in store. If you have seen it before, lucky you twice over — for having already enjoyed it, and also for now being able to see it again in better condition than ever before. Criterion is to be commended for another first-rate effort on an American film classic — a great transfer and superb supplements. Highly recommended.