"The only difference between a derelict and a man is a job." ~ Godfrey
"Godfrey loves me! He put me in the shower!" ~ Irene
"People who take in stray cats say they make the best pets, madam." ~ Godfrey
"I don't see what stray cats have got to do with butlers." ~ Angelica
"Stand still, Godfrey, it'll all be over in a minute." ~ Irene
The 1936 film My Man Godfrey is a screwball comedy, character study, and commentary on the Depression. Director Gregory La Cava takes the screenplay by Morrie Ryskand, drawn from a short story by Eric Hatch, assembling a film with a marvelous cast exploring themes like class, family dynamics, and the worth of a person. It features a leading pair of characters played by actors who had been married and divorced years before, and strangely, the two ex-spouses share terrific chemistry. The film is considered a true classic, struck a chord with audiences in that era, and remains entertaining and fresh even to the contemporary audience, even as a story that's very much of its time.
Two high society sisters, Irene and Cornelia (Carole Lombard and Gail Patrick), are out one evening in New York on a scavenger hunt of sorts. They're looking among a group of down on their luck men living at the city dump for a "forgotten man" to bring back to win the game. They come across Godfrey (William Powell), who's annoyed by Cornelia's approach and doesn't mind making his opinion known. Irene has something of a different view- she doesn't particularly want to play games with the lives of people as it is. Godfrey decides to help her beat her sister at the game and comes along to the party to help her have her victory.
In turn, Irene offers him a job as her family's butler. It's an unusual proposition- most of the family is crazy or eccentric. Their mother Angelica (Alice Brady) has a protege named Carlo (Mischa Auer) who's something of a freeloader in the family house. Their businessman father Alexander (Eugene Pallette) finds himself exasperated by the antics of his family. The maid, Molly (Jean Dixon) cautions Godfrey that he's not likely to last long working for a family this crazy. And Godfrey's presence unsettles things, while he himself is not quite as he seems.
The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including all four of the acting categories, best director, and best screenplay- ironically not winning any of the categories, but well deserved. The film at the time had been well received by audiences and critics alike, and has been since designated by the Library of Congress as a film of cultural significance. La Cava weaves his way in and out of pure screwball comedy and social commentary with ease, combining the laughter with the theme of upstairs-downstairs that particularly appeals to the British. He also uses the film to stress the notion that people who have had a bad turn in life are still worthwhile as people- a message that resonated deeply during the painful years of the Depression. Through the work of his crew, he conveys both the world of the wealthy and the downtrodden with attention to detail. The Bullock family and the circles they travel in are rendered as you might expect- opulence and a casual disregard to keeping track of financial matters. And the world of the tramp has just as much attention to detail, feeling gritty and authentic. Of the two worlds, the latter seems more grounded- unlike the insanity in the Bullock home, the tramps look out for each other, are all in the same boat, and as Godfrey reveals to an old friend who's known him before, he's only alive because of the optimistic spirit of his fellow tramps.
The actors have been well cast in their parts. Jean Dixon plays the maid Molly as sardonic and wisecracking. She's able to put up with the bizarre nature of members of the family, the only domestic able to stay around for more than five minutes. Pallette plays exasperated and annoyed very well as he tries to cope with the eccentricities of his family in different ways. It sometimes requires the character to overlook details in other aspects of his life, but he plays the part as if the man is constantly wondering what are they going to do next? Brady plays his wife as a scatterbrained kind of woman, indulging the freeloader in the household, convinced she's helping along an artistic genius. She's often oblivious to what goes on around her, and Brady brings that across in her portrayal. Her protege Carlo gets on our nerves pretty quickly, which is kind of the point. Auer plays the freeloading twit as a bit of a nutcase, quite eccentric while willing to sacrifice his own dignity in the process. His presence is limited in the film, just enough to grate on the nerves of the audience, and so when he gets what's coming, we're happy to see him go. La Cava wisely doesn't overdo it with the character that way. Alan Mowbray turns up as well in a supporting role as Tommy, an old friend of Godfrey, who knows him as he really is, and finds himself being of assistance. He must play the role as affable, and he does.
Gail Patrick's marvelous as Cornelia. She plays the part as an ice queen, somewhat spoiled and hostile, conniving and vindictive. She holds a grudge, likes the idea of playing games with people's lives, and has something of an antagonistic relationship with both her sister and Godfrey. This is ironic, because Gail has terrific chemistry with Powell. As the story comes to a close, though, we get to see something different in the character, and that extra dimension gives the character depth. Carole Lombard plays Irene in a wonderful way. The character is inherently kind, a bit scatterbrained, and prone to dramatics, such as faking a fainting spell when need be. She finds herself quickly drawn to this tramp she's hired on as a butler, has no problem at all expressing that, and she gives the relationship dynamic with Godfrey a playful, flirtatious, and adult energy. Powell is another fine choice in the lead role. If you've seen his work in The Thin Man series, you know how well he plays sarcastic, smart, and charming. He brings that here too, playing the character of Godfrey in a variety of ways. We first meet him down low, and yet he has personal pride in himself. Powell plays the character close to the vest, showing us aspects of who he is gradually. We see him both perplexed by the eccentricities of the family on the one hand, but also able to adapt to things in a hurry. We also must accept him in more than one way as we learn the truth about him, and Powell plays these aspects genuinely. Godfrey finds himself befuddled by Irene's feelings for him, tries to deflect her, but by film's end as he's being pulled into his fate despite himself, the audience completely accepts it as it is. That reflects both the way Powell has played the character throughout the film and the wonderfully playful chemistry between Powell and Lombard.
The film has justly established itself as a classic, combining the eccentricity of screwball comedy with the depth of addressing social issues of the time. While it feels very much as a story of the time, it's also a story we can relate to these days. The cast inhabits the roles in a variety of ways, all very good, and the chemistry among the leading actors has a magic all its own.