My Man Godfrey: The Right Kind of People

My Man Godfrey: The Right Kind of People

On Film / Essays — Sep 18, 2018

Ask people to name a screwball comedy, and the title you’re very likely to hear first is My Man Godfrey. Widely used and later promiscuously mis­­applied, the genre label was coined to describe a certain type of romantic comedy that flourished in the 1930s, in which a couple’s crazily unpredictable courtship masks the fact that they’re perfect for each other. And indeed, in 1936’s My Man Godfrey, director Gregory La Cava offers an exceptional amount of craziness on the way to romantic (and audience) bliss.

The plot—flipped, flopped, and outright stolen many times since—revolves around Godfrey “Smith,” an obviously cultivated man (he is played by William Powell, the ultimate in urbanity) who has somehow slid so far down the Depression-era social ladder that he is occupying a packing case. He meets Irene Bullock, Carole Lombard’s beautiful but decidedly screwball socialite, when she descends on his peaceful ash heap looking for a “forgotten man” to check off on a scavenger-hunt list, along with Japanese goldfish and the like. An intrigued Godfrey agrees to go to the “Waldorf-Ritz Hotel” to help Irene win the hunt and teach a lesson to her snooty sister Cornelia. Then, once that goal is accomplished, he tells off the teeming masses of fat cats gathered at the hotel, or “empty-headed nitwits,” as he not unfairly describes them, and is ready to return to his junk pile when Irene—who is already falling in love—stops him with the fateful question: “Can you butle?” In one of those event progressions that somehow always seem quite logical in a thirties comedy, the next day a spruced-up Godfrey arrives at 1011 Fifth Avenue (a suitably nonsensical address that puts the building more or less in the lobby of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) to butle for the Bullock family. 

There were hilariously dysfunctional families in American film before and after My Man Godfrey, but the Bullocks of 1011 Fifth Avenue represent peak lunacy. There’s devious Cornelia, played by the darkly beautiful Gail Patrick—“a sweet-tempered little number,” as the maid, Molly (Jean Dixon), calls her. There’s mother Angelica (Alice Brady), whose hangovers include visions of pixies (“I don’t like them, but I don’t like to see them stepped on”), and who is sponsoring a “protégé,” Carlo (Mischa Auer). Carlo’s sponsored talents—the ones that could be shown under the Production Code, anyway—involve a lugubrious rendition of the Russian folk song “Ochi chyornye,” a remarkable ability to make food disappear, and the single best gorilla impression in the history of American film. (Most of the correspondence between La Cava, screenwriter Morrie Ryskind, producers at Universal Pictures, and the censors at the Breen Office about the film involved stern warnings to make sure the term protégé could not possibly be taken as any kind of euphemism for gigolo.)

And then there is father Alexander, played by Eugene Pallette, a delightful character actor whose voice matched his tuba shape. He’s the most outwardly sane of the bunch, but as he states repeatedly, he may crack at any minute: “In prison, at least I’d find some peace.” Indeed, the entire Bullock family possesses a certain loopy charm—even Cornelia, with her uncanny ability to come out with the bitchiest possible remark about every situation, and even the sponger Carlo, because, after all, he does a killer gorilla impression. And the most endearing of all is Irene, who somehow managed, on the same night she hired a hobo as a butler, to also ride a horse into the mansion’s library. 

Irene bursts into My Man Godfrey from the back seat of a limousine, her silver gown shimmering against the darkness of Godfrey’s East River garbage dump. At first she is shot by La Cava mostly as a background impression of complaints and movement behind Cornelia, who is seen largely in profile, the better to capture her looking down her perfect nose. Irene at last sits down to talk to the object of all this flutter, Godfrey, unshaven and tattered but decidedly unbowed (not for nothing do his fellow dump denizens call him Duke). Now Lombard can bring out her most devastating comic weapon: her line delivery. As Irene cackles over Cornelia’s tumble, Godfrey asks sharply, “Do you think you could follow an intelligent conversation for just a moment?” And she shuts the laugh off like a faucet: “I’ll try.” She then tries to explain the concept of a scavenger hunt, which is “like a treasure hunt, except in a treasure hunt you try to find something you want, and in a scavenger hunt, you try to find something that nobody wants.” “Hmm,” ponders Godfrey. “Like a forgotten man?”

Oblivious to the insult she has just lobbed, Irene continues at top speed: “That’s right, and the one that wins gets a prize. Only there really isn’t a prize. It’s just the honor of winning, because all the money goes to charity, that is, if there’s any money left over, but then”—with a lightly apologetic gesture—“there never is.” And here comes the turn, because like La Cava’s movie, Irene’s words invariably barrel along, shift unexpectedly, and at last land on something that may or may not be a point. Irene’s voice softens, and so does her expression, as she looks deep into her new friend’s eyes and says, with artless sincerity, “You know, I’ve decided I don’t want to play any more games with human beings as objects.”

Godfrey is flummoxed, then hooked—as audiences and critics have been ever since.

Lombard was and remains one of the most beloved stars of the thirties, and My Man Godfrey is her most famous role, though her character is 180 degrees from the actress’s own lightning intelligence and common sense. “She told me My Man Godfrey was her toughest picture,” recalled her friend the director Mitchell Leisen, “because she had to be nutty, slaphappy, goofy, and her lines lacked continuity, were unrelated and without thought. They were hard to grasp.” Peter Bogdanovich claims it was Lombard who inspired a nameless Variety critic to christen the entire genre: “Lombard has played screwball dames before,” remarked the reviewer, “but none so screwy as this one.” One resolutely uncharmed critic, Graham Greene, contemptuously described Irene as “the brainless ‘lovely,’” but this is unfair. Irene has a brain, it just runs on a different track . . . and occasionally off the rails or under a viaduct. But Irene has a lot to contend with, starting with Cornelia’s relentless sibling rivalry. And she has kindness and charm, which both Godfrey and the audience can see right away, even if it eluded Greene.

Casting Lombard was the kind of masterstroke that takes a movie from “well-remembered by cinephiles” to “eternal classic.” Irene is the key to the picture; if she irritates the audience, so does the film. Initially, however, La Cava didn’t want Lombard, preferring instead Constance Bennett, who had comic abilities but lacked the instantly lovable quality that Lombard had in spades. It was Powell, everyone’s first choice for Godfrey, who insisted on his ex-wife; he and Lombard had been married from 1931 to 1933, afterward maintaining a sincere friendship that is no more common for former spouses in Hollywood than it is for exes anywhere else. Both Powell and Lombard studied real-life models for their parts, according to Lombard biographer Michelle Morgan. Powell observed his own butler, emerging with a newfound respect both for his employee and for Godfrey, who passes immediately as a perfect specimen. Lombard, on the other hand, modeled herself on La Cava’s secretary, “who was just the type,” according to Leisen. One wonders how well a film set could possibly function if one of its key employees were a real Irene Bullock, but fortunately La Cava was one of the most unbuttoned directors of the studio era. 

Born in Towanda, Pennsylvania, in 1892, La Cava was the son of an immigrant Italian shoemaker. He studied art before becoming first an editorial cartoonist, and later an animator, for Canadian innovator Raoul Barré’s studio and then for William Randolph Hearst’s International Film Service. His wild humor and willingness to experiment were already well in place by the time he started making two-reel comedy films, on occasion with his friend W. C. Fields. Fields, in turn, christened La Cava “the second-funniest man in America.” By the time La Cava took up My Man Godfrey, he had made numerous features, including The Half-Naked Truth (1932), which starred Lee Tracy as a carnival pitchman and helped establish the La Cava pace for plot and dialogue (breakneck); Gabriel over the White House (1933), a transcendently weird protofascist fantasy about an archangel put into the body of a corrupt U.S. president so he can Straighten Us All Out; and The Affairs of Cellini (1934), which turned the Florentine goldsmith’s biography into a Renaissance sex farce spiced with a few attempted murders. 

La Cava’s personal politics remained eccentric in Godfrey, based on the premise that poor people just need jobs and rich people have the inalienable right to be nuts. The movie dances around the issues of the day, but La Cava never exactly settles anywhere. The line “Prosperity is just around the corner,” uttered sarcastically more than once, was said in 1932 by Republican vice president Charles Curtis, and often attributed to President Herbert Hoover by people who didn’t like him. Clearly the still-unprosperous masses remained annoyed about that line in 1936. Meanwhile, the “forgotten man” trope comes directly from a 1932 radio address by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, during his campaign to replace Curtis’s boss.

La Cava sets up these real Depression-era concerns only to neatly solve them all. But the rescues that people fantasize about can be as telling as reality. My Man Godfrey hints at its particular brand of make-believe from the first frame, with the credits’ towering art deco signs that flash on and off, their reflections sparkling on what can only be the East River. And then, the punch line, as the camera slides down to what lies beneath all that glamour: a garbage-dump Hooverville, lit by trash fires and peopled by forgotten men about to turn in for the night. But Godfrey isn’t forgotten, as we find out fairly early on, if we haven’t guessed already. He is a wealthy Bostonian who decided that the cure for a broken heart was to go live with hobos. Like a benign version of Gabriel over the White House’s presidential angel, Godfrey, once employed by the Bullocks, soon has an opportunity to rescue them from the financial mess they’ve been merrily ignoring in favor of tea parties and their protégé. And ultimately, thanks to his machinations, a glittering nightclub, and source of jobs, rises like a phoenix from his former ash pile. After all, this dump was, as the credits hint and Godfrey jokes early on, a prime Manhattan location. Look at that bridge view!

Those are some of the unforgettable images. To come up with the equally scintillating dialogue, and other bits of business, writes Morgan, La Cava would encourage the cast to watch the dailies and bring him ideas. He helped write the script with Ryskind (whose other credits included the equally anarchic A Night at the Opera); they based it on Eric Hatch’s short novel 1011 Fifth Avenue. But for La Cava, a script was more like a suggestion, even if he had cowritten it (and here, as was frequently the case, La Cava didn’t take a credit). As Lombard told a reporter, “You think Godfrey is a good picture? Then credit 75 percent of it to Gregory La Cava, who directed it, wrote all the dialogue, and literally gave birth to it. To me, La Cava is the great directorial genius of Hollywood. I’m not saying there aren’t other ones, but when you see a La Cava production, you’re seeing a one-man creation.”

La Cava struck gold again the following year with Stage Door, a first-rate comedy about aspiring actresses that by all accounts improved on the original Broadway play. But in terms of Hollywood acclaim, Godfrey was his peak. It was nominated for six Oscars, becoming the first film to be recognized in all four acting categories, as well as receiving nods for directing and screenwriting. The movie didn’t win anything, as is frequently the case with comedies (Lombard’s loss to Luise Rainer for The Great Ziegfeld remains particularly irksome). In addition to Stage Door, 1940’s Primrose Path, a pensive romance that starred Ginger Rogers as a prostitute’s daughter under pressure to join the family business, is also a masterpiece. But La Cava’s drinking, only mildly in evidence on the Godfrey set, rapidly worsened, and his career tailed off during the 1940s, when surely it should have gone on to new heights. 

There was something modern, even experimental about a La Cava film, with his actors encouraged to go as far as their imaginations would take them. In an era where on script, on time, and on budget were the way to the studio’s heart, La Cava believed in lavish rehearsal and prized the ability to incorporate a fresh idea at the last minute. The suits were never going to appreciate his methods, but those methods made La Cava a director ahead of his time, a forerunner of other free-flying talents such as Robert Altman and Mike Leigh. With My Man Godfrey, La Cava proved that, to paraphrase the movie’s most famous line, all he needed to make a great comedy was an empty room and the right kind of people.