When William Powell, one of MGM’s top stars in the mid-1930s, read the script for My Man Godfrey, he knew that he would do the picture… but he also knew whom he wanted for the part of the ditzy socialite who falls in love with his character. Carole Lombard would be perfect in that role. He knew her very well. After all, Powell had been married to her for two years. That was not a union that worked out well, but the couple remained friends and could bring out the best in each other on screen.
Spending his nights at a dump by the East River
During the Great Depression, Godfrey Parke (Powell) fell on hard times and now he’s homeless, spending his nights at a dump by the East River. That’s where he’s found by Cornelia Bullock (Gail Patrick), who’s looking for one of the ”forgotten men” (as Roosevelt labeled them) of the era, a person she can bring to a scavenger hunt that the elites are having at a hotel. She offers him five dollars, but Godfrey is insulted and refuses. She leaves in anger, but her sister Irene (Carole Lombard) apologizes. Godfrey likes Irene much better and decides to let her take him to the hotel in order to beat Cornelia. At the hotel, Godfrey gets a chance to berate those who take part in the scavenger hunt, and Irene ends up offering him the position of butler in her family’s household, without anyone else knowing it. Godfrey accepts, shows up the following morning and starts working to everyone’s surprise.
This isn’t the first time Irene has hired a new butler, but Godfrey is good at what he does. He does have a secret though, and Cornelia still nurses a grudge…
One of Powell’s most successful films
One of the funny stories about this classic screwball comedy is that director Gregory La Cava liked to take care of business his own way, without involving studio executives. When they started filming, he and Powell disagreed on how Godfrey should be portrayed. The two men decided to have it out over a bottle of Scotch. The next day, La Cava was ready to work, showing no sign of what had happened. Powell had to send him a telegram saying: ”We may have found Godfrey last night but we lost Powell. See you tomorrow”.
This film turned out to be one of the actor’s most successful films, earning him, the director and Lombard Oscar nominations. He’s superb as the gentle, wily Godfrey, a victim of the Depression who just needs a break. Does he also need a girlfriend? Well, Irene is dead set on Godfrey as a romantic interest. One of the ingredients of this film that have aged considerably is this character and her girlish tricks to woo him, but Powell and Lombard still make it work (at least within the confines of this film) and bring plenty of charm to their characters. The Bullock family on the whole is a rich source of comedy, brilliantly played by Eugene Pallette as the patriarch who worries about money, Alice Brady as his clueless wife and Mischa Auer as her protégé, a lazy artist who spends most of his time in the house eating whatever is offered. Their scenes together are hilarious and they make the most out of the screenwriters’ rapid-fire dialogue.
As social satire, the film takes traditionally glossy Hollywood entertainment and lets the real world outside seep into it, displaying the wealthy classes as selfish and in desperate need of being educated about the common man’s plight. There is an edge to the film, but above all it’s an excellent, elegant example of screwball comedy at its finest.
These days, My Man Godfrey may be a tad forgotten compared to Bringing Up Baby (1938), a film that has a similar dynamic in the romantic relationship. Don’t let Godfrey remain a ”forgotten man”.
My Man Godfrey 1936-U.S. 95 min. B/W. Directed by Gregory La Cava. Screenplay: Morrie Ryskind, Eric Hatch. Novel: Eric Hatch (”1101 Park Avenue”). Cast: William Powell (Godfrey Parke), Carole Lombard (Irene Bullock), Gail Patrick (Cornelia Bullock), Alice Brady, Eugene Pallette, Alan Mowbray… Mischa Auer.
Trivia: Remade as My Man Godfrey (1957). Jane Wyman can be spotted in one scene.
Quote: “I’ve just been going over last month’s bills, and I find that you people have confused me with the Treasury Department.” (Pallette to his family)