My Man Godfrey (1936) Director: Gregory La Cava
This amusing and chaotic screwball comedy is based on a short story by Eric Hatch, called “1101 Fifth Avenue”. The film was later remade in 1957, though the 1936 version is considered best. It was a critical and commercial success, and remains a popular screwball comedy from the 1930s.
The film stars William Powell and Carole Lombard, who were married to each other years earlier (1931-1933). The plot takes place during the Great Depression while Powell’s character, Godfrey Parke, a former Harvard graduate, is living in a slum near the 59th Street Bridge in New York City. A group of high-class socialites are on their way to a party and stop to bring a bum to their party, for entertainment. Godfrey initially refuses to join at the invitation of a spoiled older sister, whom he advances on and she falls into a pile of ashes, However, Godfrey joins at the request of her sweeter younger sister, Irene. He attends the party as a “forgotten man,” however he delivers a blistering attack on the emptiness of the rich elite at the party. Irene, begins falling in love with him, and she hires Godfrey as the family’s butler. He quickly realizes the chaos of the family, as everyone is apparently on the verge of an emotional wreck at any given time. Godfrey is nearly exposed for his true identity, when an old friend from Harvard recognizes Godfrey at a party, though he covers pretending he was the valet for him.
The older sister, Cornelia, is trying to ruin the life of Godfrey. Eventually, she plants a pearl necklace in his room, and calls the police and attempting to frame him for robbery, however they do not find the necklace. Meanwhile, Irene pretended she was engaged to get the attention of Godfrey, and after she calls it off, she returns home. The father of the family announces that he has lost all of the family’s fortune in the stock market decline, however Godfrey comes in to save the day. Using the pearl necklace as collateral, he shorted the market and bought up all the father’s lost shares in his name, preserving the family’s wealth. He then returns the necklace to Cornelia. He then leaves his job as a butler with the family. He takes his share of the stock profits and goes to start a business at his old spot down by the river called “The Dump”, giving food and shelter to many. At the end, Irene bustles her way back into his life -she moves in and strong arms him into marrying her. It ends amusingly.
The film had troubles finding the right actors, and at one point Powell and La Cava had a disagreement over the portrayal of Godfrey, so they settled their disagreement over a bottle of scotch. The next morning for the shoot, La Cava showed up with a headache and telegram from Powell that read: “WE MAY HAVE FOUND GODFREY LAST NIGHT BUT WE LOST POWELL. SEE YOU TOMORROW.”
Lombard later had a very public marriage to Clark Glabe in 1939, but tragically died in a plane crash in 1942. William Powell appeared in several other films during the year 1936 – including The Great Ziegfeld, winner of Best Picture at the Academy Awards. My Man Godfrey is regularly considered one of her best films – she was known for the screwball comedies. The film was nominated for 6 Academy Awards (excluding Best Picture) winning none.
My Man Godfrey has been called one of the most delightful screwball comedies of the 1930s, and is an amusing satire of high class pretensions. It is a fun movie, and chaotic like a Marx Brothers film, though it falls short of being an excellent film.