' ' Cinema Romantico: My Man Godfrey

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

My Man Godfrey

Released in 1936, "My Man Godfrey", which became the first film in the then short history of the Academy Awards to receive nominations in all four acting categories, must have been a perfect, tasty tonic to a country that was only just beginning to lift itself up and out of The Great Depression. More than anything, director Gregory LaCava and his able band of righteous stars shows how a movie can be entertaining and socially relevant at once.

William Powell (Best Actor Nominee) turns down his usual dashing quotient - initially, at least - as Godfrey Smith, a resident, with other downtrodden victims of the Depression, of the city dump. An acidic, raven-haired socialite, Cornelia Bullock (Gail Patrick), turns up and offers our man Godfrey five dollars to accompany her as a so-called "forgotten man" for a scavenger hunt involving other socialites around New York City. Godfrey refuses, eloquently but not kindly, and Cornelia, angered, flees the scene just as her sister, Irene (Carole Lombard, Best Actress Nominee), shows up and presents the exact same offer to Godfrey, though in a much gentler manner which causes Godfrey to accept.

Upon winning the scavenger hunt back at the ritzy Waldorf on account of her "forgotten man", Irene tries to show that Godfrey's not all forgotten by suggesting that he take on the position of the family's butler. Well, she doesn't so much suggest as insist. Godfrey agrees and almost instantly upon employment finds himself caught up in a house of spoiled wackadoos lorded over by Irene and Cornelia's father Alexander (Eugene Pallette), a businessman of great repute, who is married to Angelica (Alice Brady, Best Supporting Actress Nominee), she of the shrill voice and inconsequential observations who dotes pitifully on her protege Carlo (Mischa Auer, Best Supporting Actor Nominee), who is supposedly in the throes of composing some great symphonic piece but spends most of his hours eating.

Sister Cornelia, of course, is nefarious, an instigator, a vamp, to use the parlance of the times, and she is out to get Godfrey every step of the way, spying, talking tough, and even going so far as to employ a scheme used by one Caledon Hockley 24 years earlier aboard the RMS Titanic.

Irene, on the other hand, is the very essence of the Blonde Archetype. She awakes in bed in fur coats, bubbles over with energy, chatters constantly, indulges in pretend fainting spells, fake cries to get her way, and flirts endlessly with Godfrey. (In fact, Lombard pursues Powell in this film as aggressively as Kirsten Dunst pursued Orlando Bloom in "Elizabethtown", though, of course, modern critics conveniently overlook this because "My Man Godfrey" was deemed Culturally Significant by the Library Of Congress. But never mind. Forget about it. Move along. Nothing to see here. Please disperse.)

Amidst so much madness, Powell mostly downplays, keeping his wits about him, working as the vermouth to the gin. He might seem in over his head but he has secrets, too, which eventually will be revealed. He's no one's fool.

At the risk of sounding like a modern-day cinematic philistine, many of the more famed screwball films of the era never quite send me into pleasant delirium the way their cultural status would suggest. "The Lady Eve", in particular, leaves me quite disappointed, and I have tried it twice simply because of the esteemed Roger Ebert's superlatives on the subject. It has some nice romantic moments, to be sure, but its pace slacks and it does not draw all its ideas together - at least to this viewer - as cleverly and effortlessly as "My Man Godfrey."

To think that this film lets the guy get the girl, subvert those who are out to get him, selflessly assist those who have stood by him, and do it in such a way that would have let those on the negative end of the economic spectrum feel hope and joy without alienating those on the positive end of the same spectrum kind of defies belief in this current era when mixing and matching of ideas and genres so often yields overlong, bloated and empty spectacles. "My Man Godfrey" is a socially relevant romantic comedy that is funny, charming and contains a message without commenting politically. It's cliché, sure, but, seriously, man, they just don't 'em like this anymore.

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