Equipped with clever dialogue, William Powell and Carole Lombard turn in performances that demonstrate the art of understated humor and sexual undertones. Gregory La Cava is not a name typically discussed when Hollywood classic cinema comes to mind. However, his My Man Godfrey rightfully deserves a place among the greatest screwball comedies of the 1930′s.
- Director: Gregory La Cava
- Writer: Eric Hatch, Morrie Ryskind, Gregory La Cava
- Cast: William Powell, Carole Lombard, Alan Mowbray
As part of a scavenger hunt competition, a spoiled pair of young sisters make their way to a dump where they come across a “forgotten” homeless man named Godfrey (William Powell). As a result of this unlikely encounter, Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard), the younger sister, decides to hire him as her family’s butler. Driven by a crush on Godfrey, Irene makes advances at every possible turn, only to find herself distraught when Godfrey’s past becomes the subject of unraveling events at the Bullock household.
My Man Godfrey received six Oscar nominations in 1936, thriving almost purely on dialogue and acting. It is therefore not surprising that five of its nominations were in the screenwriting and acting categories. The acting performances stand out largely due to the material created by Morrie Ryskind, known for writing theatrical productions in addition to screenplays. With few set changes, the story focuses on Godfrey and the Bullock’s family within the space of their home. Shot almost entirely as if shooting a stage production, Gregory La Cava is almost exclusively left to direct performances and tone. With the selective use of close-ups, certain moments become especially pronounced, as when Godfrey reveals his past to his new-found friend from Boston (Alan Mowbray), a scene that essentially sets up the third. La Cava sticks mostly with wide shots, allowing the film to showcase it’s physical comedy and rapid fire dialogue that must have put pressure on people behind the Hays Code.
I can’t remember feeling more ambiguous about the prospect of a wedding at the end of any film. Weddings at the end of a film bring closure; the sense that two people will live happily ever after. But My Man Godfrey is no such film, and in this way, it accentuates the sense that it stands alone with respect to other romantic comedies. Ultimately, we’re not even fully convinced that Godfrey will in fact go through with the wedding that Irene is clearly pushing for. When Irene shows up at “The Dump”, we’re somewhat pleased that a romance might finally occur, but striking reservations clearly exist. For one, Irene is highly unstable, and her spoiled lifestyle seems vastly at odds with the life of a man who fled a comfortable life in order to find himself. While it is reasonable to assume that Irene has perhaps become attracted to Godfrey particularly due to his strong sense of self, I’m not fully convinced that her character will understand the sacrifices he made.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
Ebert’s review is mindful of contextualizing the film as not only taking place during the Depression, but also, being made during that time. He points out that La Cava’s film contrasts the poverty of “forgotten men” during the Depression with the spoiled lifestyles of rich people who spend time pursuing idle entertainment. The plot, as implausible as it might be, is also addressed by his review as such, but to judge this film purely based on its plausibility is to miss the point of a screwball comedy. In terms of the acting, Ebert alludes to a cast where actors operate like emotional tennis partners, all capable of offering counterpoints. Though my regard for My Man Godfrey does not reach the extent of Ebert’s praise, his review is a refreshing reminder that being critical of a film’s plausibility should not automatically preclude us from relishing any particular aspects on an emotional level.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GOOD
Do you like La Collectionneuse? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: My Man Godfrey
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, a monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 363 films (more if you count the trilogies, the Up docs and Decalogue). Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey this week, he now has 335 under his belt and less than 30 films left to go