Chef du Cinema: My Man Godfrey
I want to start with my favorite story about Carole Lombard. She began her career in Hollywood in her teens and, as we know, was very attractive. She found herself hounded by the wolves of Tinseltown but came up with an idea to thwart them. She had her two brothers teach her every “expletive deletive” they knew. She not only peppered but also salted her conversations with them—which had the intended effect of turning off would-be seducers. She also quickly discovered that itmade them treat her less like a naive ingenue and more like “one of the boys,” which she enjoyed.
In 1930, Lombard was twenty-one, under contract to Paramount, and still struggling to make a real name for herself. In contrast, William Powell was thirty-seven and one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, having successfully made the transition from silent villain to talkie heartthrob. Director Richard Wallace wanted Lombard to costar with Powell in his new film Man of the World, and set up a meeting in his office. She was nervous, as he was not only a big star but also one of the most eligible bachelors in town (he had been separated from his wife for six years at this time). By the time the meeting was done, they were so enjoying each others’ company that they decided to continue their conversation over dinner.
Before the movie was even in theaters, they were an item in all the gossip columns. They made quite the odd couple—he the debonair man of the world, and she with her impetuous nature and sailor’s mouth. Powell had no interest in marriage, once remarking that the problem with the institution was that “it is too much like living in an institution.” Lombard was quoted as calling marriage “dangerous,” as it “spoils beautiful friendships that might have lasted years.” But by mid-1931, Powell had divorce papers from his former wife and a marriage license for Lombard.
At first, she was like his protégé. He coached her on acting and hooked her up with his agent, who got her a very lucrative contract at Paramount. They spent their evenings at home now, having dinner with each other or with friends, like actor Richard Bathelmess and his wife. But they were also like ships sailing in opposite directions. He was coasting on his great success, while she was working like mad, making picture after picture.
By the end of 1932, word on the street was that the marriage was on the rocks. In the spring of 1933, she moved out. Their divorce was amicable; a private joke at the proceedings was that one of her given reasons for it was Powell’s use of “foul language.” A few years later, she was quoted as saying of the marriage, “I was the best fuckin’ wife you ever saw.”
They continued—in a way that is rare with divorcés, and was especially so at that time—to be great friends. In fact, once the divorce was finalized, they were again seen hitting nightspots together, and the gossip pages rumored that they might remarry. But they didn’t. They remained friends and confidants. “I must like the man, or I wouldn’t have married him in the first place,” Lombard told reporters shortly after the divorce.
Cut to 1936. Powell was offered the lead in My Man Godfrey. He said he would take the part on one condition—that Lombard play Irene, his love interest. It would be the first time a real-lifedivorced couple played a couple in the movies. (At the time, Powell was dating Jean Harlow, and Lombard and Clark Gable were beginning their romance.)
Now, the reason I’ve gone through Powell and Lombard’s romantic history in such detail is that there is a bit of dialogue near the end of My Man Godfrey that, in my opinion, takes on a deeper meaning once you know all this. Director Gregory La Cava was well known for letting his actors improvise. Frank Capra wrote that La Cava “was an extreme proponent of inventing scenes on the set. Blessed with a brilliant, fertile mind and a flashing wit, he claimed he could make pictures without scripts.” Watch Powell and Lombard in this scene, scripted or not, and tell me if you don’t see them speaking through their characters to each other.
While some of the dialogue might, in real life, be reversed—she being the protégé—it echoes their own relationship, their marriage, and their continued friendship. And even later, when Irene tells Godfrey, “You love me and you know it. There’s no sense in struggling against a thing when it’s got you. That’s all there is to it,” I get the sense Powell and Lombard knew it too.
For a dish to pair with My Man Godrey, I decided on a pastry recipe that Powell supplied to the 1940 book Famous Recipes by Famous People. We’ll just have to imagine whether he made these for his new bride in their kitchen. Vatrushki (or vatrouskis, as Powell called them) are an Eastern European dish similar to cheese Danishes—but different. They can either be made savory (with herbs and onion) or sweet (with sugar and fruit), and sometimes they’re filled with poppy seeds rather than cheese. Powell’s recipe was pretty straightforward (and by that I mean a bit bland), so I’ve opted to modify it with the addition of more sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and raisins. Feel free to leave them out, if you wish.
William Powell’s Vatrushki
Adapted from a recipe by Powell in Famous Recipes by Famous People, compiled and edited by Herbert Cerwin
For the dough:
½ cup warm water
1 packet active dry yeast (always use the freshest yeast)
¼ teaspoon sugar
4 cups all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 large egg
½ cup warm milk
For the filling:
1 pound large-curd cottage cheese (or farmer or whole-milk ricotta cheese)
½ cup sour cream
1 tablespoon butter, melted
2 large eggs, 1 slightly beaten
3 tablespoons sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon vanilla
¼ cup raisins, soaked in warm water for 10 minutes
½ teaspoon cinnamon
Wrap cheese in cheesecloth and squeeze excess liquid out of it. Set aside.
Mix warm water, yeast, and ¼ teaspoon sugar in small bowl or measuring cup. If yeast doesn’t start bubbling within five minutes, start again with fresh yeast.
Put yeast mixture, flour, sugar, salt, warm milk, and 1 egg in a mixing bowl or food processor with a dough hook. Stir or pulse to combine. When dough forms into a wet ball (you may need to add a bit more flour if it’s too wet—if it sticks to your hands, that’s too wet), cover and let rise until doubled in size (30–40 minutes).
Meanwhile, put cheese, sour cream, melted butter, 1 of the eggs, 3 tablespoons sugar, ¼ teaspoon salt, vanilla, and raisins in another medium bowl. Stir to combine. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Preheat oven to 400°F.
When dough has risen, divide into twelve pieces and roll them into balls. Place on a nonstick or greased baking pan. Slightly flatten each dough ball into something resembling a hockey puck. Put a pinch of flour in the center of each puck, then using the bottom of a regular-sized drinking glass (make sure the bottom is flat), make a deep depression in each (careful not to cut the dough in two—if that happens, simply reroll into a ball and start over). Fill the depression with some of the cheese mixture (don’t overstuff).
Brush the edges of each vatrushka with the beaten egg. Bake for 25–30 minutes, until golden.
Ron Deutsch also blogs at chefducinema.com.