Tuesday, February 26, 2013
My Man Godfrey (1936)
We're showing this great screwball comedy tonight at the film club. Can't wait. Here's my review from last year.
'Life is but an empty bubble,' sighs Carole Lombard's spoilt socialite in Gregory La Cava's My Man Godfrey, casually summing up the philosophy at the heart of the screwball comedies of the '30s. In fact, this is probably the prototype '30s film, a Depression-fuelled screwball romance with all the blithe wit of a Broadway play leavened with scabrous contempt for the rich and blessed with that mysterious light touch that the best directors of the era seemed to have in abundance. It's a classic. William Powell plays homeless bum Godfrey Smith living at the city dump and minding his own business when snobby rich girl Cornelia Bullock turns up and offers him five dollars to be her 'forgotten man' for a scavenger hunt. He refuses and she storms off. But her younger sister Irene (Lombard) stays behind, intrigued by this strange man. Touched by something sweet-natured in her (and by a curiosity to see such an event at first hand) Godfrey offers to help her beat Cornelia. In the ballroom of the Waldorf-Ritz Hotel we're treated to a scene of undignified chaos as hundreds of socialites push and shove and argue over who gets to register their scavenger hunt items first. Irene's father Alexander (Eugene Pallette) observes, 'all you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people'. And that's the film right there, the rich are crazy (with greed and boredom), American capitalism is teetering on the brink of savagery, but the poor, the forgotten men, have had all the crazy knocked out of them. It's touch and go as to who should be pitied more. Only Irene is absolved, she's a kind of holy innocent who offers Godfrey a job as their butler so she can have a protege like her empty-headed mother (Alice Brady), who has free-loading poet Carlo (Mischa Auer). As the new butler in the Bullock madhouse Godfrey is the most refined character in sight. No one had the elegant poise and knowing intelligence of William Powell. He moves through the film with the careful reserve of an adult trapped at a children's party. And Lombard is sensational, a ditzy dope with a big heart, a loveable child prone to funny moods and irrational fits of mania. There are twists and turns that ultimately let the rich off the hook somewhat, lessons learned, the social satire softened, but somehow it doesn't matter as faultless direction pulls us through to the perfectly delivered last-line closer most films would kill for.