...The film in the earlier sequences well conveys the atmosphere of an American Cherry Orchard, of a class with little of the grace and all the futility and some of the innocence of its Russian counterpart. Unfortunately to these Americans prosperity returns, there is no dignified exit while the axes thud in the orchard, only the great glossy club rising over the wilderness of empty tins, and, last muddle and bewilderment, the marriage of the reformer and the brainless 'lovely.'That's Graham Greene's contemporary review, in The Spectator (quoted in The Films of Carole Lombard by Frederick Ott). The Siren would never have made it as a cinema studies major, because she finds this quote damn near as funny as My Man Godfrey itself. That same year, in the London Times (also from Ott's book), we have another critic citing "characters which strongly resemble those of Chekhov." You can tell London was a barrel of laughs in 1936.
Of course, old Anton always did insist his plays were funny, and I think he might have enjoyed My Man Godfrey. And you do find some themes worth pondering, such as:
1. In this great country of ours, rich people have a right to be crazy, too.
2. The cure for melancholy is to live with hobos.
3. The way to a woman's heart is through the shower stall.
4. What the Depression-era economy needed was more nightclubs.
5. What the English language needed was the verb "to butle."
Serious stuff. Where I really part company with Greene is when he calls Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) "brainless." Them's fightin' words. She has a fine brain, it just runs on a different track ... and occasionally off the rails or under a viaduct. But Irene has had a lot to deal with, what with bitchy sister Cornelia (the beautiful Gail Patrick) trying to take everything away from her. And she has kindness and charm, which William Powell sees right away, even it eluded Greene.
For years I have used this movie as my Prozac prescription, just the thing when the world is too much with me. I always thought this was because it was goofy. It occured to me when watching it again, however, that there's another reason. The year 1936 offered an unprecendented number of real-life villains, but there aren't any in this film. It's just as good-hearted as Irene. You can't truly dislike the gigolo Carlo (Mischa Auer), because after all he does a mean monkey impression.
Even Cornelia isn't all bad. Take the scene where she gets royally told off by Godfrey.
You belong to that unfortunate category that I would call the Park Avenue brat. A spoiled child who has grown up in ease and luxury and who has always had her own way and whose misdirected energies are so childish that they hardly deserve the comment even of a butler on the off-Thursday.
Okay, are you thinking of the same person the Siren is thinking of? There is hope for that young woman yet. Look at Gail Patrick's reaction. She's hurt. And in the end you know she's going to be a better human being. Not necessarily someone you want babysitting the kids, but much less of a brat herself.
Maybe the British were on to something. Old Anton gives all his characters an essential humanity, too. So scratch the title of today's post, and read it: "Goofy but Chekhovian: My Man Godfrey."
(corrected 2/16/07, with thanks to VP19.)