A Movie About a Butler, Love, and Screwball Comedy
In the 1936 movie classic My Man Godfrey, we find William Powell (of the Nick and Nora Charles Thin Man movies) and a radiant, yet slightly wacky, Carole Lombard magnificently complimenting each other’s considerable acting abilities. Believe me, it’s no easy thing to play ditsy and easily distracted, but Lombard does it with a genius that’s both stunning and hilariously zany at the same time. And William Powell, who plays the seemingly down-on-his-luck bum hired by Lombard’s Irene Bullock character to be her new butler, delivers a nuanced and appropriately-mannered performance that manages to convey a bemused mirth at the antics of the upper-crust Bullock family, into whose arms he’s been thrown by the fates.
Directed by Gregory LaCava, My Man Godfrey is set in the Great Depression, which is a time in America where both great wealth and great poverty co-existed uneasily with each other. Irene Bullock and her sister, Cornelia (the always dependable Gail Patrick), have been out on a high-society game of “scavenger hunt,” in which the task set before the hunters is to find a so-called forgotten, or downtrodden, man. Trolling through a local city dump, which was also home to a few dozen men who’d been tossed into rough seas by the Depression, we see the Bullock sisters happen upon their prize (Powell). Through a series of humorous events, Powell’s Godfrey Smith (not his real last name, as we find out later) eventually agrees to hire on for a short while as Irene’s manservant. Of course, Cornelia Bullock is none-too-pleased, and over the course of the film engages in a few dirty tricks with the aim of laying Godfrey Smith low. Naturally, Godfrey proves smarter and more capable than either of the Bullocks realize at first, and that goes double for the rest of the clan, led by Eugene Pallette, who plays put-upon father and prominent businessman Alexander Bullock to gravelly-voiced comedic perfection. Of course, Powell’s Godfrey is not at all who he appears to be when Irene and he first meet at the dump. In reality, he’s much more than just a butler, but that’s only gradually revealed — with great relish and comedic effect — as we move through My Man Godfrey. By the film’s end, we’re both pleased and laughing joyfully at the final scene, where both William Powell and Carole Lombard come to a more permanent relationship.
This classic movie was also written with social commentary in mind, it being the Great Depression, and all. It subtly examined themes of class and morality in how we treated those of us who in that day were thought to be of lower social status. That kind of examination of class and morality in movies runs through many of the more contemporary cinematic offerings which have appeared in theaters over the last few decades, including The Remains of the Day, among others. My Man Godfrey was also the first film to be nominated for four Oscars in all four acting categories. Additionally, it’s been deemed a “culturally significant” movie by the Library of Congress. If you want screwball comedy and subtle social humor, you can’t go wrong with the movie classic My Man Godfrey.