Filmsite Movie Review
My Man Godfrey (1936)
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Background

My Man Godfrey (1936) is one of the 1930's most delightful, classic screwball comedies. It was directed by Gregory La Cava for Universal and is now considered the definitive screwball comedy, with its social commentary on life during the 30s. The film, filled with marvelous character actors (Alice Brady, Eugene Pallette, Gail Patrick, and Mischa Auer), resonated with Depression era audiences for its statements on morality and class. [On a side note, the real-life divorced couple of Powell and Lombard were married previous to the film's making, from 1931 to 1933.] The screenplay by Morrie Ryskind (a co-screenwriter for the Marx Bros.' A Night at the Opera (1935)) and Eric Hatch was based on Hatch's own short novel 1011 Fifth Avenue.

The film displays the mad-cap personalities of a wildly rich, eccentric family. One of its members - a flighty socialite/heiress, finds a down-and-out "forgotten man" tramp in a hobo colony during a scavenger hunt, and hires him as the family's butler. The bum teaches them the realities of life, ultimately regenerates their confused, scattered lives, and reverses the nobility of rich and poor.

The entertaining film was both a commercial and critical success, with six Academy Award nominations (but no wins), including Best Actor (William Powell), Best Actress (Carole Lombard with her sole Oscar nomination), Best Supporting Actor (Mischa Auer), Best Supporting Actress (Alice Brady), Best Director, and Best Screenplay. However, it set a milestone as the first film to receive nominations in all four acting categories and it remains one of the few films with that distinction in addition to not being nominated for Best Picture.

In the same year, another William Powell film - The Great Ziegfeld - won the Best Picture and Best Actress awards, and Powell also appeared in Libeled Lady (1936) and After the Thin Man (1936). The film was remade in 1957 with David Niven as the "forgotten man" and June Allyson (in her next-to-last film) as the Lombard character.

The Story

The credits are played, with Charles Previn's upbeat music, over a sketched, art-deco drawing of a cityscape [New York] next to a river. The camera pans from left to right along the waterside, picking up sequentially-flashing neon signs on the modernistic structures and warehouse buildings of the names of the cast, producer, director, and crew. At the conclusion of the pan, the camera stops on a dark, silhouetted view of a great bridge. In the foreground is a smoky city dump, where chimneys of a shantytown are visible. The drawing dissolves into a live-action image, revealing a a scene shrouded in darkness. A bum rakes a fire, and a dump truck expels trash. Refuse pickers are combing and picking through the mounds of discarded cans next to the East River.

Two men exchange a short, casual conversation. They speak about how great it would be if the police went after the real criminals and left them alone: "Well, I figured out a swell racket and everything was going great until the cops came along...If them cops would stick to their own racket and leave honest guys alone, we'd get somewhere in this country without alot of this relief and all that stuff." They are cheerful and joking (with a sarcastic Herbert Hoover truism) despite their surroundings:

Godfrey Smith/Parke: (dryly) Mike, I wouldn't worry. Prosperity's just around the corner.
Mike (Pat Flaherty): Yeah. It's been there a long time. I wish I knew which corner. Well Duke, I'm gonna turn in. Bon soir.

Godfrey Smith/Parke (William Powell), a hobo who lives in the city dump, is unshaven and scruffy and dressed in tattered clothes - an old hat and coat. [The debonair star's appearance as a bum must have made Depression-Era audiences grim.] On the road above the heaps of burning debris, two shiny vehicles arrive, and two rival, debutante sisters (wearing dark and silvery light-colored gleaming satin gowns respectively) hastily emerge: tall brunette Cornelia Bullock (Gail Patrick) (accompanied by her well-dressed escort George (George Light)) and then blonde Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard). As Irene stands in the background of the trash heap, Cornelia approaches Smith/Parke and callously offers him five dollars to be her "forgotten man":

Cornelia: How'd you like to make five dollars?...
Godfrey: Well, I don't mean to seem inquisitive, but what would I have to do for it?
Cornelia: All you have to do is go to the Waldorf Ritz Hotel with me and I'll show you to a few people and then I'll send you right back....Oh, if you must know, it's a game. You've probably heard about it - a scavenger hunt. If I find a forgotten man first, I win. Is that clear?
Godfrey: Yes, quite clear. Shall I wear my tails or come just as I am?

Proud, annoyed, sarcastically "flattered" by her "very generous offer," and incensed for being treated so discourteously and offensively, he appears angry and momentarily frightens her - she backs into a rubbish pile of ashes. Recovering her poise, the snooty, rebuffed and humiliated lady huffs back up the hill with her ineffectual escort at her side, while Irene is intrigued and looks on with amusement. Smith/Parke almost bumps into the scatter-brained Irene - she has remained there, pleased to see her usually-victorious sister humiliated. Sitting down together, he speaks to the flaky socialite while silhouetted in shimmering profile by the light:

Godfrey: Who are you?
Irene: I'm Irene. That was my sister Cornelia you pushed in the ash pile.
Godfrey: How'd you like to have me push Cornelia's sister into an ashpile?
Irene: Oh, I don't think I'd like that.
Godfrey: Then you'd better get out of here.
Irene: You bet.
Godfrey: Wait a minute. Sit down.
Irene: I'm sitting.
Another bum: (ominously) What's up Duke? Need some help?
Godfrey: No thanks boys. I've got everything under control. (To Irene) Are you a member of this hunting party?
Irene: I was, but I'm not now. Are they all forgotten men too?
Godfrey: Yes, I guess they are maybe. Why?
Irene: It's the funniest thing. I couldn't help but laugh. I've wanted to do that ever since I was six years old...Cornelia thought she was going to win, and you pushed her in a pile of ashes. Ha! Ha! Ha!
Godfrey: Do you think you could follow an intelligent conversation for just a moment?
Irene: I'll try.
Godfrey: That's fine. Do you mind telling me just what a scavenger hunt is?
Irene: (in a breathless tempo, she makes an innocently-cruel statement) Well, a scavenger hunt is exactly like a treasure hunt, except in a treasure hunt you try to find something you want and in a scavenger hunt, you try to find something that nobody wants.
Godfrey: Hmmm, like a forgotten man?
Irene: That's right, and the one that wins gets a prize. Only there really isn't a prize. It's just the honor of winning, because all the money goes to charity, that is, if there's any money left over, but then there never is.

Revealing her sensitivity and obtuseness (about the Depression) simultaneously, the dingbat Irene childishly states: "You know I've decided I don't want to play any more games with human beings as objects. It's kind of sordid when you think of it, I mean, when you think it over." She also foolishly asks about his dwelling-place:

Irene: Could you tell me why you live in a place like this when there are so many other nice places?
Godfrey: You really want to know?
Irene: Well, I'm very curious.
Godfrey: It was because my real estate agent felt that the altitude would be very good for my asthma.
Irene: My uncle has asthma.
Godfrey: No! Well, now there's a coincidence.

On a quick impulse, Godfrey agrees to accompany her - as a "forgotten man" so that she can "win the game" over her domineering older sister: "You'd win if you got back first with me." He agrees to appear at the party as her "forgotten man" and abruptly states: "Let's beat Cornelia." And he expresses his curiosity about the gala event: "I'd really like to see just what a scavenger hunt looks like."

It is a scene of mad pandemonium in the ballroom of the Waldorf-Ritz Hotel as dozens of celebrants rush about in elegant clothing (tuxs and gowns) as they carry in articles from the hunt. Irene's frog-voiced, impatient, rotund and harrassed father Alexander Bullock (Eugene Pallette), the sole representative voice of sanity, drinks at the bar with another man as they observe the insanity around them:

Blake (Selmer Jackson): This place slightly resembles an insane asylum.
Bullock: Well, all you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people.

His line leads directly to the introduction of his scatterbrained wife of twenty years, a "dizzy old gal" named Angelica Bullock (Alice Brady), accompanied by her mooching artist/protégé Carlo (Mischa Auer) - she is dragging a goat behind her toward the podium where the harried, authoritarian scavenger coordinator (Franklin Pangborn) tallies up the scores amidst a chaotic melee of other competitors. Angelica is told that she is missing only two more items - a forgotten man and a bowl of Japanese goldfish. A blustery Alexander snarls that he is returning home without her: "If you want a forgotten man, you'll find me home in bed."

Into the scene of societal madness and confusion, Irene leads Godfrey by the hand, as he comments: "Are all these people hunters?...It sounds like a bankruptcy proceeding." The master of ceremonies asks Godfrey to stand up on a platform to speak. After identifying his "permanent" address as "City Dump 32, East River, Sutton Place" and having his whiskers pulled to demonstrate their authenticity - to Irene's victorious delight, Godfrey delivers a short speech that denounces the posh gathering:

My purpose in coming here tonight was two-fold: firstly, I wanted to aid this young lady. Secondly, I was curious to see how a bunch of empty-headed nitwits conducted themselves. My curiosity is satisfied. I assure you it'll be a pleasure to go back to a society of really important people.

As he strides out of the hotel, Irene decides that she won't let the goal of her hunt escape. She chases after him, apologizes, and gratefully offers him employment as the Bullock family butler - at their Fifth Avenue mansion:

I'd never brought you here if I thought they were going to humiliate you. I'm terribly grateful. This is the first time I've ever beaten Cornelia at anything and you helped me do it...You've done something for me. I wish I could do something for you...because you've done something for me, don't you see?...Can you butler?

He assures Irene's mother of his trustworthiness, even though he hasn't references or credentials: "People who take in stray cats say they make the best pets, Madame." Irene gloats when Cornelia appears, already beaten, with another "forgotten man." She disdainfully approves of Irene's offer of a job to her bum: "He might make a very good butler...I hope, Godfrey, that you're very good at shining shoes." Godfrey is given money to buy appropriate butlering attire ("a trick suit") and soon moves in with the family.


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