Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Goofy but Great: My Man Godfrey (1936)

...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.)


Diane said...

Bravo! Make that 2 who wouldn't have made it as a film major, for I don't know what in god's name Greene is talking about. This film is in the top of my pyramid simply because I have watched it so many times lines fly out of my mouth!

Have you seen "Libeled Lady"? I imagine you have, but if not, William Powell is wonderful in it, too. I bring it up because I saw a double feature of "Godfrey" and "Lady" a couple of years ago and I thought the pairing was perfect!

NowSmellThis said...

My Man Godfrey is my all time favorite movie. Ok, maybe a tie with The Women. But it is one of the funniest movies ever made, and I can never understand people who don't think it is funny. And they are out there. I have met them.

Campaspe said...

I think people who don't find My Man Godfrey funny should be avoided at all costs. Even if they are Graham Greene.

katiedid said...

Graham Greene I'm sure meant well enough, but I think there's a lesson to be learned in that. Never take *everything* seriously. Poor guy.

I mean how could you not get how brilliant the scene where Carole Lombard's character and the maid are doing dishes together, and then they cry over Godfrey together?!

VP19 said...

Cornelia is portrayed by Gail Patrick, not Gail Russell.

Campaspe said...

Good lord, you are right. Total misprint on my part (I do know the difference!) I will fix, thanks.

Bill said...

I just saw this via the IMDb reviews link. Whenever asked what my favourite movie is I always answer, "My Man Godfrey." I couldn't count the number of times I've watched it. Love your line, "What the English language needed was the verb 'to butle.'"

I don't see any contemporary films that capture this kind of spirit, perhaps because they tend to focus on one star as opposed to a team, like Lombard and Powell (or later, Powell and Loy). I've always thought the first Legally Blonde captured some of Lombard's Irene but failed to produce a male counterpoint. (Why do so many romantic comedies lack partners of equal, though contrasting, strengths? They usually have romantic interests that are very namby pamby.)

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