“Well all you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people,” laments long-suffering head of the Bullock household, Alexander (Eugene Pallette), retreating to the bar amid a scavenger hunt entertaining the idle rich of New York City who fill the foyer of the Waldorf-Ritz with the paraphernalia of this pointless, hedonistic game. Seems the crushing blow of the Depression skipped a beat.
While Alexander’s wife is handling a non-compliant goat and its kid, his daughters Cornelia (Gail Patrick) and Irene (Carole Lombard) are jumping over each other to coerce a “forgotten man” from the city dump back to the hotel. These glittering creatures, Cornelia in a figure-hugging green silk gown trimmed with fur, and Irene in a silver sparkling number create a stark juxtaposition against the back drop of this black, burning wasteland.
Cornelia’s forceful and unsympathetic offer of a fiver for his efforts repulses Godfrey (William Powell), so much so that he offers some coercion of his own, landing Cornelia in the ash-pile. She retreats to seek the police for this brave infringement of her status, while Irene coquettishly flirts with Godfrey. Seeing Irene as harmless, he decides to help her get one-up on Cornelia by offering his services as a “forgotten man” to win the scavenger hunt.
Assessed in front of the crowds clamouring to show their finds to the judges, Godfrey is reduced to proving his status as “forgotten” and pet to prove the integrity of his whiskers. At least someone in the room proves his integrity. Godfrey admonishes them for their moral failures, and to make up for this display on the part of her circle, Irene sympathetically offers him the job to “butle” for her family, which proves to be laced with as much punishment as restitution.
We’ve entered the implausible and absurd world of the screwball comedy, popular for the slight reprieve they offered from the bitter realities of depression era America. And it gets even more ridiculous as Irene falls madly in love with Godfrey (she’s not alone – who could resist William Powell’s silky deep voice?), and Godfrey lands on the defensive on all fronts, fending off Irene’s propositions, Cornelia’s attempts at revenge, trying to keep this crazy tribe of Bullocks together (which means a healthy mental level of inebriation for the liquefied Alexander).
My Man Godfrey has all the wit and charm of the classic screwball comedies, as well as an ensemble cast with deliciously melded chemistry. The film was in fact the first to receive oscar nominations in all acting categories. Powell and Lombard are beautifully suited to their roles, both together and apart. The two actors had in fact divorced three years earlier, but so amicable was their divorce that Powell insisted on casting the then struggling Lombard in the part. A perfect match in all senses. I love this film, and as Irene cooes a hesitant Godfrey, “There’s no sense in struggling against a thing when it’s got you. That’s all there is to it.”
I watched the restored Criterion Collection technicolor version of the film, available on Hulu, though as the film is now out of copyright you can access copies of the black and white version on youtube. A few weeks ago I had the absolute pleasure of seeing Lombard’s opening dress from the film, rendered silver in the technicolor version but in fact a stunning gold hue in real life, at the ACMI Melbourne’s Hollywood Costume exhibition. The costumes for My Man Godfrey are stunning, and aside from being a rollicking screwball, the film is worth watching for the costumes alone. Costumes from black and white films are often created unrealistically extravagant to diversify the image, and in colour; the patterns, cuts, designs and materials of My Man Godfrey’s costumes are simply, gorgeous.
Also, If you want to hear the notoriously sailor-mouthed Lombard drop some swear words, check out the blooper reel from the film.