Monday, February 24, 2020

My Man Godfrey (1936)

(This blog post is part of the Butlers and Maids Blogathon hosted by Caftan Woman and Wide Screen World

When is a butler not a butler? When he is really a rich man who is down on his luck. That is the central theme of My Man Godfrey (1936), one of the greatest screwball comedies of the Thirties. My Man Godfrey received positive notices upon its release and was a smash hit with audiences. It was also nominated for several Academy Awards. To this day it considered a classic.

My Man Godfrey centres on Godfrey Parke (played by William Powell), who is living in a shanty town at a New York City dump with other men who are down on their luck during the Great Depression. His life is disrupted when he is discovered by socialite Cornelia Bullock (played by Gail Patrick), who is looking for a "forgotten man" (one of the many who were poor and out of work during the Depression) as part of a scavenger hunt held in conjunction with a society ball. Annoyed by Conelia's haughtiness and condescension, he approaches her angrily in such a way that she flees. Fortunately, Godfrey finds her younger sister, Irene (played by Carole Lombard) much nicer and agrees to be her prize for the scavenger hunt so that Cornelia will lose. It is after the two arrive at the society ball and Godfrey castigates the crowd for their behaviour. It is afterwards that Irene offers Godfrey a job as her family's new butler.

My Man Godfrey was based on the 1935 novel 1101 Park Avenue by Eric Hatch, which Charles R. Rogers, then head of Universal, bought the screen rights to. At the time Charles R. Rogers had Constance Bennett in mind for the role of Irene. He also wanted Gregory La Cava, fresh from his success with She Married Her Boss (1935), to direct. Unfortunately for Charles R. Rogers, Mr. La Cava had earlier worked together on The Affairs of Cellini (1934) and he was not particularly eager to work with the actress again. He suggested that they get Constance's sister Joan Bennett for the role, whom he thought was both a better actress and easier to work with as well. Ronald Colman had campaigned for the role of Godfrey, but Gregory La Cava wanted William Powell for the part. It was William Powell's condition that his ex-wife, Carole Lombard, be cast in the role of Irene. Gail Patrick, who specialised in the role of the unsympathetic, "other woman" in movies at the time, was cast as older sister Cornelia. Curiously while Miss Patrick played the older sister, she was actually three years younger than Carole Lombard.

My Man Godfrey was shot from April 15 to May 27 1936. Retakes took place in early June of 1936. Being shot at Universal (one of the "Little Three" among the major studios of the Golden Age of Hollywood), its budget was a modest $656,000. As it turned out, that $656,000 would be well worth it.

My Man Godfrey received overwhelmingly positive reviews upon its release. It also did very well at the box office. Given its reception, it should come as no surprise that it was nominated for several Academy Awards. My Man Godfrey was nominated for the Oscars for Best Director (Gregory La Cava), Best Actor (William Powell), Best Actress (Carole Lombard), Best Supporting Actor (Mischa Auer), Best Supporting Actress (Alice Brady) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Eric Hatch and Morrie Ryskind). It was the first ever film to be nominated for the four acting categories (this being the year that the Supporting categories were introduced). It was also the only film in the history of the Oscars to be nominated in all four acting categories that was not nominated for Best Picture as well. Despite its sheer number of nominations, it did not win even one Academy Award.  

While My Man Godfrey received no Oscars, it remains better remembered than many of the movies that did that year. In 1999 it was selected by the Library of Congress for the preservation in the National Film Registry as being "culturally significant." The American Film Institute included it at no. 44 in its list of the 100 Funniest Comedies. To this day it remains one of the few movies to maintain a 100% rating at the review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes.

Of course, there should be little wonder that My Man Godfrey remains so highly regarded. The film contains some of the sharpest dialogue of any movie in the Thirties or ever since. As a screwball comedy it features some of the funniest situations ever shot on film. It has a sterling cast, with every single cast member giving top-notch performances (indeed, I am convinced that Gail Patrick should have also been nominated for an Oscar). What is more, My Man Godfrey was extremely relevant to the times. The film would not have been the same without the circumstances of the Great Depression (forgotten men, Hooverviles, et. al.). And while My Man Godfrey drew upon the Great Depression for its plot, sadly, it remains relevant to this day. Indeed, the 1957 remake of the film (in which June Allyson was miscast as Irene) seems much more dated today than the original 1936 version.

Because it is so very funny and features sterling performances by the cast and solid direction by Gregory La Cava, My Man Godfrey is still regarded as a classic to this day. Because it drew upon the circumstances of the Great Depression, it remains relevant to this day as well. 


Caftan Woman said...

I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of My Man Godfrey, especially how its place in the tragedy of the Great Depression elevates its message and its humour. It is sorely missed in the 1950s remake.

I showed this to my daughter when she was young and she has only ever been able to refer to Mischa Auer as "Monkey Man." That's quite an impression.

Thank you for bringing the wonderful Godfrey to the blogathon.

Brittaney said...

Thank you for featuring all the interesting details around the making of this screwball classic! I always feel it adds to the overall experience of watching an old favorite knowing what happened behind the scenes.