The effects of the Great Depression were felt throughout American society in the ‘30s. It completely reshaped American life, and it’s broader effects throughout the world led to the economic issues that would give rise to fascism. Even the movies weren’t free from the Great Depression. Attendance maintained throughout the economic downturn as there were many people in need of a diversion, and most films of the era banked on glitz and glamour, a form of lifestyle porn that was so far out of reach in that time of desperation. But the movies weren’t all just simple escapism. The comedy from director Gregory La Cava, My Man Godfrey, blended a witty sense of humor with social commentary about the uncaring, listless upper classes and their ignorance to the plight of the masses. My Man Godfrey now enters the Criterion Collection with a gorgeous transfer of the 1936 comedy and plenty of special features examining the film’s style and substance.
Sisters Irene (Carol Lombard) and Cornelia Bullock (Gail Patrick) are competing against one another in a scavenger hunt. All that is required for victory is for one of them to bring a “forgotten man” to the Waldorf-Ritz Hotel to win. (The term forgotten man has its roots in a speech given by FDR about the downtrodden who have been overlooked by society.) Irene and Cornelia find a forgotten man at a dump along the East River in Godfrey Smith (William Powell). Cornelia and her crudely upper class demeanor rubs Godfrey the wrong way and he refuses to be a pawn for her. But he does find himself succumbing to the scatterbrained charms of Irene and agrees to be her forgotten man. Irene wins the scavenger hunt and afterwards Godfrey lambasts the casually cruel socialites surrounding him. His defiant stance awakens a sense of shame in Irene and she offers him a job to be the family’s butler, which he promptly accepts.
Within the Bullock household, Godfrey performs his assigned duties admirably, but finds himself ensnared in a wealthy but dysfunctional household. The Bullock patriarch Alexander (Eugene Pallette) and his airheaded wife Angelica (Alice Brady) have no idea of Godfrey’s recent life as a derelict, and Cornelia uses that little bit of leverage to try and force out the newly hired butler if only to make her sister mad. While Irene finds herself falling for Godfrey, Cornelia is scheming for ways to get the lowly butler fired, including planting a pearl necklace on his persons and claiming it was stolen. However, Godfrey hasn’t been exactly forthright about his past and that leads to complications when he’s spotted by an old friend Tommy Gray (Alan Mowbray), the two old friends creating a bit of a charade to obfuscate the truth.
In the old Hollywood tradition, Godfrey and Irene at first find themselves in a somewhat contentious relationship before slowly falling for one another. There’s a genuine chemistry on the screen between William Powell and Carol Lombard, which is truly impressive considering that the two screen legends were married and divorced by the time they costarred in My Man Godfrey. Powell has a quiet dignity that he brings to Godfrey, something that the actor brings to character when in the gutters and in the penthouse. In the growing farce, Powell is the straight man to Lombard’s frantic, scatterbrained Irene. It’s Lombard’s energetic performance that livens up My Man Godfrey, presenting her costar with countless moments to display that tempered dignity for pitch perfect comedic results.
While My Man Godfrey is full of witty dialogue and classical direction, it’s the film’s social awareness that really stands out today. Gregory La Cava and screenwriters Eric Hatch and Morrie Ryskind don’t just pay lip service to the income equality of its era, but instead paint a vivid picture of this class struggle and how some were simply immune to the epidemic of the Great Depression. While it’s certainly not a film advocating class warfare, La Cava doesn’t do the affluent many favors and portrays them as lazy and entitled, but it’s an affliction of indifference towards those on the bottom of the ladder that can be cured with a willingness to look beyond oneself. La Cava displays a certain level of political sophistication in his film which you won’t find in the works of Frank Capra, who was rather naïve and flexible in his politics, shifting positions based upon the direction of the popular winds. As income inequality has become such a notable issue once again, My Man Godfrey has taken on a sort of timeless quality as an old film speaking to the audiences of today.
As expected with any Criterion release, there are plenty of special features on the My Man Godfrey disc to accompany the gorgeous 4k transfer of the film. Critics Gary Giddins and Nick Pinkerton each get their own informative interviews where they discuss the film and career of Gregory La Cava. One fun special features are rare outtakes from the film, some of which include language you’d never hear from classic Hollywood stars. A Lux Radio Theater adaptation of the film is included on the disc, featuring David Niven taking on the role of Godfrey. There’s also a historical newsreel about the class divide caused by the Great Depression. Finally, the booklet included with the disc includes an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme.
My Man Godfrey is another stellar from the Criterion Collection. It’s a masterful restoration of a Hollywood classic with plenty of special features. This particular comedy stands out because it’s so adept at commenting on the class struggles of its era that it transcends its era. With its iconic stars, witty banter, and comedic examination of class struggles, My Man Godfrey has endured as a classic and now it can continue to endure with its place among the greats of the Criterion Collection.
My Man Godfrey
A brilliant comedy starring William Powell and Carol Lombard, director Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey enters the Criterion Collection with a special edition that honors the legacy of the classic Hollywood comedy featuring strong social commentary as well as plenty of laughs.