Thursday, February 23, 2012

My Man Godfrey (La Cava. 1936)

"Stand still, Godfrey, it'll all be over in a minute."

Screwball comedy seems to be the gem-genre in the early days of cinema. With a runtime of only one and a half hours, I was holding off on watching My Man Godfrey because I figured it would be a simple and enjoyable watch. A couple of nights ago I realized that I was not in a place to try and watch a four hour Indian movie, so I knew it was time for the Criterion Collection edition of an Oscar nominated classic.

What I love most about screwball comedy is that it has no other purpose than to make the audience feel good. Movies in this genre are usually short, sweet and extremely easy to follow. My Man Godfrey is no exception to this rule. It is a cliché-ridden exercise is pop-ridiculousness, but it still remains a popular movie because it features some hilarious moments, great performances and is incredibly well made.

William Powell plays a “forgotten man” named Godfrey who is found living in a dump by a couple of wealthy sisters. This is taking place in the middle of the Great Depression, so you can imagine how well these sisters were received in the dump. Why were they there in the first place? They were on a God awful scavenger hunt where the winner had to find a homeless man and take him to the ballroom of the Waldorf-Ritz Hotel. The first sister to approach Godfrey, Cornelia (Gail Patrick) tries to bribe Godfrey with five dollars. When he refuses to go she accosts him. As he approaches her in his defense, she steps backwards and falls into a pile of ashes and then storms off from embarrassment.

All of this happens much to the delight of Cornelia’s younger sister, Irene. She is a blonde, light-headed, beautiful young woman (Carole Lumbard) who does not understand that this game is horribly offensive. Seeing her charm and wanting to help her beat Cornelia, Godfrey agrees to play along for Irene. Because of this, she offers him a job as a butler for her family. He gratefully accepts.

Powell and Lumbard have impeccable chemistry on the screen. This makes sense considering they were briefly married and then divorced by the time My Man Godfrey was being made. Powell is the much needed wise-cracking “straight man” who serves as an anchor to the outlandish performance by Lumbard. Irene eventually, to the chagrin of Godfrey, takes the butler under her wing and makes him her “protégé”. The audience never really figures out what she means by that, but she is determined to be a mentor to the already-classy-seeming Godfrey.

Of course, Irene falls in love with Godfrey and hilarity ensues. Her family is practically nuts. Her father is played be a personal favorite actor of mine, Eugene Pallette, who I have previously seen in other screwball comedies like The Lady Eve. He, like Godfrey, is a defeated man. Though he is very rich, he is desperately trying to get his family to understand that he is hemorrhaging money. But the three women of the house are somehow able to drown out the chainsaw-like voice of Pallette. The mother of the family, played by Alice Brady, is virtually out of her mind. She wakes up every morning seeing fairies dancing around her room. She is consistently hung over and lacks any understanding of her daughter’s behavior.

Cornelia, the sister, is a bitch. Like, it is very difficult to try and describe her any differently. She decided that she was not going to like Godfrey from the start and tries almost anything to get him into trouble. She tries to frame him as a jewelry thief. When that fails, she tries to seduce him. I am not sure what her motivation is for this sort of behavior, but she really is an awful person. Played brilliantly by the strikingly gorgeous Gail Patrick, Cornelia is the untamed villain in My Man Godfrey. But she gets humbled by the end.

The movie itself is shot in a glimmering black and white. I was lucky enough to get my hands on the Criterion DVD and I strongly recommend you do the same thing. In its restored form, everything from Irene’s diamonds to the tile kitchen floors seems to have an appropriate radiance that advances the mythos of the ridiculous story. The family that Godfrey works for is flamboyant, showy and figuratively (and literally) loud. The restored black and white and creative cinematography advance these characteristics through flamboyant, showy and loud aesthetics. I feel that I should tell readers that a color version of the film does exist. Please ignore it. It dulls everything down.

It turns out that Godfrey is much more complicated than he originally seemed, but Irene’s love for him remains unscathed. After he is able to save the day, he somewhat reluctantly gets the girl. I have read some people criticizing the film for having an unrealistic solution at the end. But who wants realism in their 1930s comedy?

My Man Godfrey was the first movie to have an Oscar nomination in all four acting categories. The cast is truly brilliant. It is a short, funny, quirky and fast-paced comedy that I strongly recommend.

My Man Godfrey: A

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