Thursday, December 15, 2011

My Man Godfrey

All you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people.  -- Alexander Bullock (Eugene Pallette)
In the first scene of My Man Godfrey, two upper class socialite sisters, drunk on wine and blessed with the ignorance of the wealthy youth, traipse into a Depression-era dump. Their goal? To find a "forgotten man" for a scavenger hunt. "Forgotten men" were, as defined by Roosevelt in a speech promoting his New Deal, poor people who had been forgotten and needed help from the state. In their search, they come across a surprisingly erudite yet initially gruff hobo named Godfrey.  Like a giggly, effervescent FDR Irene Bullock, the younger sister, sweeps into Godfrey's life and gives him a second chance at respectability. Clearly, she is attracted to Godfrey right off the bat, and he is taken by her honest well-meaning ignorance. When she asks why he "chose" to live in such a place, he responds affably that his real estate agent thought the altitude would be good for him. After they win the scavenger hunt, she rewards him with a job as their new butler, which turns out to be as much of a chore as it is a blessing.
Godfrey and Irene have their first fateful meeting.

The Bullock family is... eccentric to say the least, as Godfrey discovers when he comes to work at their home. The mother Angelica is a loud, delusional lush who when hungover in the morning hears music that isn't there and sees pixies, "those troublesome little men" as she calls them. Her character is given a lion's share of the best lines, which she digs into with a boozy, unhinged aplomb. The two sisters, Irene and Cornelia are mirror images of one another. Both are spoiled, needy and manipulative, but Irene does it with such a harmless openness that only the most idiotic people couldn't see through her machinations (indeed, she's lucky to be surrounded by the brainless upper class). Cornelia is smarter than her sister, and more malicious in her plotting. Both sisters fall in love with Godfrey almost immediately, but where Irene turns to obvious, cloying, romantic ouevres. Cornelia seeks to destroy what she cannot have. However, her attempts to get rid of the genteel butler are as see through as her sister's attempts to woo him. 

Alexander Bullock, the long-suffering husband and father of the Bullock clan, likens the chaotic atmosphere of his home and high-class social circle to that of an asylum. He serves as an angry, loud-mouthed coin purse to  his mother and daughters, who always scoff at his insistence that they be smarter about money. The Depression affects the rich as well it turns out. Carlo, Angelica's "protégé", is an idle concert pianist who spends all his time sitting around and eating the family out of house and home. When he does play, it's the same tune each time--"Ochi Chyornye"--and he doesn't even know all the words. Alexander Bullock's open disdain for Carlo suggests that perhaps there is more going on between this so called protégé and his foolish, if well-meaning, wife. 

William Powell's Godfrey is genteel to a fault. Regardless of whether he's surrounded by garbage piled stories high or by the gross incompetence of the Bullock family, he remains entirely unscathed. The missteps of his past, which he attempts, poorly, to keep hidden from the Bullocks cause him to build a wall against their annoyances and their dopey charm. But not even he can resist the relentless pursuits of their youngest daughter Irene for long. Working for the Bullocks slowly but surely softens him, inspired by their generosity (tempered as it may have been by insanity), he uses his second chance to try and help those fellow forgotten men he left behind. 

Carole Lombard as Irene is a comedic force of nature. With her open smile, coquettish laugh and childish ignorance, she easily endears you to her rather ditzy character. From the first moment she meets Godfrey, she is determined to love him and have him love her back. To that end she wields her charm like a battle-axe, pummeling away tirelessly at his walls of civility and propriety. Their romance, though it drives the film, is never quite believable, and this has to be by design. Lombard's seduction is a war of attrition against Godfrey's stuffy savoir-faire and in the end when he finally gives in (what other end could you have in the 30s?), it's like he's been drafted and has no say in the matter. Indeed, in the wedding ceremony which doubles as an ambush against Godfrey, she comforts him by saying "Stand back... it'll all be over in a minute", once again recalling to the 1930s audience the sexual undertones that the movie was not permitted to explore more openly. 
Godfrey endeavors to resist Irene's charms.

My Man Godfrey is a magnificently madcap screwball comedy, perfectly attuned to an era where people eagerly sought escapist entertainment. Gregory La Cava, armed with an acerbic script, directs this movie with vigor. Every line is perfectly delivered like spitfire, particularly from Godfrey as he chastises, coddles and defends himself from this oddball family. Playing the requisite straight man, he shows surprising affection for these characters, which plays so much better than cynical disdain. The chemistry between him and Irene works bewilderingly, her open desire, barely masked by the confines of the Hayes Code, countered by his frank, well, lack of interest. Apparently the two had been married, and subsequently divorced, in real life before this movie was made... throughout the film this back story seems readily apparent.

While light on social commentary (the "forgotten men" often seem like their simply strolling through the dump for an afternoon), this film is heavy on charm... powered by the likeability of the characters and the perfection of the actors. Overall, the movie breezily shoots through it's 90 minute or so runtime and is so disarmingly pleasant, like the Bullocks themselves. You can't help but want to visit the Bullock mental ward again and again.

Gleenneen16's rating: ****/*****

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