An unsparing lack of sentimentality runs through My Man Godfrey, director Gregory La Cava’s screwball comedy from 1936 about an eccentric wealthy family and the seemingly destitute man they hire as their new butler. It is a Depression era comedy ostensibly about the Depression, and yet La Cava refuses to romanticize the plight of the poverty-stricken, or assign them patronizing qualities of inherit goodness for the sake of drawing class distinctions. This is a film not simply about the balkanization of society during a time of upheaval, but also of the merits of escapism – the methods we employ to navigate our daily realities. Viewed through this prism, the comic battle of wills at the center of My Man Godfrey can be taken both as wry social commentary and archetypal romantic comedy.
The film begins with two socialite sisters arriving at a landfill that has become a refuge for the hard-up. They are participants in a charity scavenger hunt, and the final item they need is a “forgotten man.” Haughty Cornelia Bullock (Gail Patrick), the older of the pair, is rejected by the bum she approaches, but the man agrees to leave with her younger sister Irene (Carole Lombard). In the aftermath of Irene’s victory, she convinces her parents to hire this lost soul – Godfrey (William Powell) – as their new butler. Godfrey, as we will learn, is neither a “forgotten man” nor a butler, but the scion of a wealthy Boston family, who after the end of a love affair, sought solace in the anonymity of the marginalized. Ensconced in a job that requires servitude to a maddening, oddball collection of characters, Godfrey carries an air of disdain and entitlement, obviously overqualified for his position. Naturally, Irene falls for Godfrey, and between rebuffing her advances as well as Cornelia’s attempts to have him fired, he must contend with the family’s vain matriarch (Alice Brady), her ineffectual stockbroker husband (Eugene Pallette), and Carlo (Mischa Auer), Mrs. Bullock’s “protégé” of indeterminate European stock.
The film’s strength is its actors – it was the first film to garner Oscar nominations in all four acting categories. Especially noteworthy were the performances of Lombard and Powell. There is a palpable chemistry between them, and Irene and Godfrey are both stubborn, strong-willed personalities equally suited for the push-and-pull of courtship. Her indefatigable persistence matched by his fervent resistance. The comedy arises not from suspense, but because we know how the story is fated to end – what is more escapist than the euphoria of love?