Universal // 1936 // 93 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 6th, 2012
A landmark screwball comedy from Hollywood's golden age!
When lists of the great screwball comedies are assembled, you're bound to see a handful of the same titles at or near the top of the list: Bringing Up Baby, Duck Soup, His Girl Friday, The Lady Eve...all superbly entertaining movies, to be sure. It's hard to say why the great My Man Godfrey doesn't get quite as much attention. Perhaps it's the lack of a star as instantly recognizable as Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Groucho Marx, or Henry Fonda. Perhaps it's that director Gregory La Cava isn't an esteemed auteur like Howard Hawks or Preston Sturges. Regardless, there's no question My Man Godfrey remains one of the subgenre's most clever and wildly entertaining installments.
We first meet Godfrey (William Powell, The Thin Man) in the middle of a dump. That's where he lives, you see, along with a handful of other drunkards and vagrants. He's just encountered Cornelia Bullock (Gail Patrick, My Favorite Wife), the wealthy daughter of the cantankerous Alexander Bullock (Eugene Palette, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) and the flighty Angelica Bullock (Alice Brady, Young Mr. Lincoln). Cornelia is on a scavenger hunt, and hopes to persuade Godfrey to serve as the "forgotten man" she needs to present to the hunt's judge. Godfrey is a little insulted by the notion, and frightens Cornelia off. However, he finds himself charmed by Cornelia's loopy younger sister Irene (Carole Lombard, Made For Each Other), who sticks around until Godfrey volunteers to help her win the hunt. Irene is so delighted by Godfrey's wit and accommodating nature that she hires him to be her family's new butler on the spot. Godfrey is happy to have employment, but soon finds that serving the family may be more than he bargained for. Between the bouts of hysteria, the deceitful games and the wild mood swings, the Bullocks quickly prove to be quite a handful.
I won't spoil where things go from there, as the plot has a number of surprising developments up its sleeve, but suffice it to say My Man Godfrey delivers the laughs in a big way. Even viewers who wrinkle their nose at the idea of attempting to find enjoyment in a black-and-white movie made in 1936 (though if that's your point-of-view, shame on you) will likely find plenty that entertains them. The movie delivers the comic goods from every angle, offering witty dialogue ("If you're going to be rude to my daughter, you might as well at least take your hat off!"), gut-busting physical comedy (the marvelous sequence in which Angelica's peculiar "protégé" acts like an orangutan in an attempt to lift Irene's spirits), and deliciously entertaining plotting.
William Powell may be best-known as Nick Charles, but his Oscar-nominated turn in My Man Godfrey is arguably his finest hour. He's adept at veering between slyly entertaining straight man and exasperated quipster as the script requires, and nails his endless supply of memorable lines with his subtle deadpan. His tiny gestures of bewilderment and defeat are hilarious when juxtaposed with the cheerfully over-the-top antics of the other characters, and he knows precisely when to command scenes and when to quietly support them (he's like a great butler in that regard).
Even so, it's hardly a one-man show (in fact, My Man Godfrey was the first film to earn Oscar nominations in all four acting categories). Powell's ex-wife Carole Lombard is hilarious as the giddily immature Irene. In fact, the pair had already been divorced three years when the movie was made, but Powell insisted that Lombard was perfect for the role. She's a hoot, digging into spectacularly silly scenes with gusto ("Godfrey loves me! He put me in the shower!"). Brady's clueless snobbery is a lot of fun, and Eugene Palette transcends his stereotypical role as the irritated patriarch with his terrific comic timing. It's a treat to watch these actors digging into such consistently entertaining material.
The film also serves as a compelling artifact of the depression era, demonstrating a playfully edgy sense of anger towards obscenely wealthy individuals who squander their money while impoverished people struggle to survive. It doesn't dig too deeply into the plight of the homeless (after all, this is a lightweight comedy), but certainly doesn't ignore or deny the very real impact the economy was having on lower-class individuals. The film's concluding developments seem mighty progressive in today's hot-headed political environment; a savvy mixture of capitalistic enterprise and socialistic wealth redistribution. It's a development the film provides with innocent sweetness rather than politically charged posturing; a warm slice of pre-McCarthy All-American goodness. Ah, how things have changed.
My Man Godfrey isn't getting the hi-def treatment it deserves, but this is a fine-looking DVD. The standard definition 1.37:1 transfer is on the soft side, but clean and clear save for a handful of scratches and flecks. The Dolby 1.0 Mono track is bold and sturdy without any significant crackling or distortion. Sadly, bonus features are limited to a pair of featurettes celebrating Universal's history which aren't specifically related to the film ("100 Year of Universal: The Lew Wasserman Era" and "100 Years of Universal: The Carl Laemmle Era"). Back in 2001, Criterion released an edition of the film featuring an excellent audio commentary and a handful of other goodies. It's a shame those extras couldn't be included on this release.
My Man Godfrey is one of the finest comedies of 1930s. There's really no reason to get this release if you have the Criterion disc, but one way or another, you owe it to yourself to check out this comedy classic.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1936
MPAA Rating: Not Rated