directed by: Gregory La Cava
written by: Morrie Ryskind & Eric Hatch from a novel by Eric Hatch
Academy Award Nominations for:
Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor (William Powell), Best Actress (Carole Lombard), Best Supporting Actor (Misha Auer), and Best Supporting Actress (Alice Brady) It was the first film to receive nominations in all 4 acting categories.
I know that all the above information can easily be found on the IMDB and other resources online — everybody knows that. But I include it here for a reason. If you are at all a fan of the great “screwball comedies” that owe their existence to the horrific life lived by so many Americans during the Great Depression, then you know each of the actors listed as old friends. They all worked non-stop in the dream-factories of Hollywood to make escapist movies that could offer a couple of hours relief from the worry, hunger, and despair of the outside world.
The Great Depression was both an economic condition, and a psychological one, and it was these people’s jobs to make it a little more survivable and to provide smiles and laughter at a time when those things weren’t always in good supply.
But I include those credits for another reason. If you click on the movie 1-sheet poster at the top, it will take you to the IMDB page. Once there, you have the option of clicking on “full cast and crew.” If you look there, you will see dozens of names of people who have (or more likely, their family members have) added them to the cast list as “uncredited – socialite” “uncredited – waiter” “uncredited – doorman” or some other uncredited member of the cast for the crowd scenes, the scenes at parties or restaurants, and the scenes in the night club.
Is there meaning in this observation? There are a few. First — that people whose only notable screen work was as extras in scenes of black and white make-believe — those people carried their memories home to their families. This must have been on the list of favorite stories to tell around the Thanksgiving table: “grandma, tell us again about making the scavenger-hunt scene in “My Man Godfrey,” or “tell us again what Carole Lombard was like.” “Whose name was sewn into the tuxedo jacket you wore?” or “Did Clark Gable really come to the set the day you were in the cocktail party scene?” Did people really have parties like that in those days?
There’s also an awareness that as long and seemingly boring as the blockbuster mile-long credit reels are — there is somebody paying attention to make sure that everybody who broke their back and worked until 3am gets credit for their hard work and creativity. This was not the case in early Hollywood. Most movies had a limit of 25 people who could be listed in credits. The heads of a few departments. The actors with the most lines. A director, a producer, and a writer. The truth has always been that important movies had teams of writers contributing great jokes or important scenes, and lesser movies were sometimes written by committee. If the gowns were by Edith Head, you can bet there were a dozen artists actually working on the dresses. Or more. And while there has always been a cinematographer and an editor, the legions of electricians, boom operators, and lighting specialists were never given screen credit.
If George Lucas let 8 minutes of credits roll at the end of the first Star Wars movie in 1977 — it was because he was fair and wanted to give credit where credit was due. And that was a fairly original thought.
My Man Godfrey was a big deal in 1936. William Powell was 44, and had been making movies since 1922 in the silent era. As a 14 year veteran of the movie business, and a huge star (The Thin Man series started in 1932) — he wielded enough power to insist that this movie wouldn’t get made with him as Godfrey unless his ex-wife (Lombard) played opposite him. Lombard was already a hit, too, but with a much shorter resume behind her. Her prime — short as it would be — was just beginning. (Lombard died in a plane crash on a 1942 patriotic-publicity tour to sell WWII War Bonds.)
But Powell was a full-blown matinée idol. He had already played the great detective, Philo Vance, in several films, and he was the embodiment of “debonaire.” In his younger days, he was paid to be beautiful — but in his 40s, his on-screen persona was cool and masculine, soft-spoken, often a little tipsy, and always clever and quick with a snappy line. He and his characters were gentleman of intelligence and wit, even when angry or drunk, but especially in love.
So here’s the story:
One upon a time, a spoiled son-of-old-Boston-money, who made his living in high finance before the stock market went boom! was nursing a broken heart with liquor to the point that he ran away from home and was living in a tent/shack city on the Manhattan city dump, at the post of one of the city’s great bridges.
One night, a limo pulls up to the dump and a crowd of top-hatted and splarkly-gowned socialites hop out in search of items on their list of scavenger-hunt treasures, for a charity ball — though hardly any money is ever raised by these escapades for real charity. In this moment, a snotty, rude aristocrat is looking for an item on her list: a “forgotten man” — which was an important phrase in the midst of the Great Depression, and had been co-opted by FDR in one of his famous “Fireside Chats.”. This garbage heap is littered with men who fit FDR’s definition of Forgotten Men — who ran banks, law firms, and investment houses before the crash — as well as a few WWI vets and outright hobo-types.[In the real world of the time, these camps were also populated with many women and children, and a great many older people, but we suspect that would have diverted attention from clean structure of this story.]
Miss Aristocrat-the-Elder (played by the perennial villainess, Gail Patrick) insults our forgotten man, Godfrey, and heaps on apathy toward the poverty and misery all around her. He refuses her overtures to return with her to the city so she can win the hunt — but is more receptive to the cute and warm-hearted ditz of a little sister (Lombard.) So Lombard shows up at the charity ball with Godfrey, wins the prize, and then hires him as the family’s new butler.
Wicked sister is jealous of Lombard’s scavenger hunt win, as well as her sweet and funny exchanges with Godfrey, and so sets about to have Godfrey thrown or carried out of the house, and carried off to jail on a trumped-up charge of stealing a string of pearls.
But Godfrey — even when not quite sober — outsmarts her and uses the pearls she has planted under the mattress in his room as the down payment on an idea to put all the men he met and knew well at the city dump back to work, and bring them back to life with places to live and some pride in their lives and work.
He enlists the help of an old college chum (Alan Mowbray) who has discovered his new found name and life — and the real work begins.
Godfrey is a good guy that we suspect may not always have been so good. But he’s seen the underside of the shiny world he was raised in, and gotten to know personally the people who made his early life as easy-to-be-blase-about as it was. With some new perspective, he is still a gentleman — the perfect butler — but he no longer takes anything or anyone for granted.
Eugene Palette plays the tycoon father of the two girls with the detached but loving patience of a doomed saint. His business interests are slowly being eaten away by the Depression, and wasted away by his air-headed and spoiled family. Godfrey is the only one who notices the signs of stress in his voice and behavior, and at one point even offers himself as a former “dabbler in finance” to try to help, but the proud father cannot admit to his troubles — especially to a butler.
It is only at the end of the movie (after a wonderful hour of Powell and Lombard’s exuberant flirting and chemistry) that Daddy admits to everyone that the family is broke, he has lost everything, and they only have their home and a few baubles left to keep them afloat. His despair is real since he also diverted funds from his shareholders to try to save the business — and that may land him in jail.
When wicked sister, Patrick, takes a final run at Godfrey just for the sport of bringing him down and breaking her sister’s heart, Godfrey enters the parlor with suitcase and overcoat in hand. But before leaving, he presents Pallette with a portfolio of Pallette’s company stock which Godfrey has bought up over the months to keep it out of the hands of others (thus saving the family from ruin;) and returns the mysterious pearl necklace to its wicked owner, thanking her for the use of its capital. He admits to having been working on his own project on the side, and thanks the family for teaching him so much about himself. Thank-yous are said, and Godfrey disappears faster than the family and faithful cook can even say goodbye.
The camera follows Godfrey to the THE DUMP — a booming new club built on the real estate of his former tent city home.
We recognize the valet parking attendant, the head waiter, and several other employees as former forgotten men and city dump residents. We follow Godfrey into his apartment/office, and get to witness him finalizing a deal to install steam heat in the 50 residences adjoining the club where his fellow (and former) forgotten men now live.
Lombard has followed Godfrey, too — and a convenient guest of the club, NY City’s mayor, marries them on the spot (and they live happily ever after — the end.)
It was a great story in 1936. It’s still a great story.
But if you’re a movie fan, you already knew this. If you’re not — you probably already stopped reading. So why write about this great film?
Because for the first time since the Great Depression, people are talking about things like hunger, homelessness, government involvement, and unemployment in something close to the same voice that they talked about it in 1936. For decades, My Man Godfrey was a great and funny film, historical document/artifact, but had lost some of its connection to the world we live in.
In 1936, everybody wanted the federal government to fix the catastrophic circumstances of the Great Depression. To make it all the way it had been before. Americans voted Hoover out of office because he didn’t do enough fast enough — and everything he did failed. FDR came in with an army of idea-men (sorry, but yes, it was just that sexist.) He lived by the policy of “if this doesn’t work, we’ll do something else. If that doesn’t work, we’ll do something else. If that doesn’t work….” And that’s what he did. Over and over and over and over — more ideas, more programs, and more taxes. This was the beginning of spending imaginary money (debt) and of calling on those who had more, to save those who had little.
There’s a line in My Man Godfrey, when Pallette (daddy) and his assembled family are first talking about the family company, and Pallette says,
“I’ve just been going over last month’s bills, and I find that you people have confused me with the Treasury Department! I don’t mind giving the government 60% of what I make, but I can’t do it when my family spends 50%!”
Times have changed. Morality has changed. The Tax Code has changed. FDR was certainly criticized in his time for the New Deal and all it’s projects. He built the infrastructure of the country, funded the arts projects of the day, and put people to work in record numbers during the Depression — on that 60% tax rate for the rich, and on borrowed money. He did things that people then and now label ABSURD. And that other people called brilliant. Innovative. Courageous.
Today, however, I read a lot of the arguments on both sides of his New Deal. I read articles by the folks who tout WWII as the ultimate solution to the Great Depression, rather than the WPA and all its sister projects. I also read about a current piece of legislation in Montana that talks about how some CO2 in the atmosphere is good for Montana’s coal driven bottom line. Yesterday I read an article claiming that a limited nuclear war — using roughly 100 bombs the size of those dropped on Hiroshima (approximately the number currently in the possession of India and Pakistan) could reverse global warming.
And today I read a current review of My Man Godfrey on RottenTomatoes.com that called it Hollywood Marxism.
Imposing today’s political discourse on a 75-year-old film ultimately does disservice to both. The film should be allowed to have the voice of its own decade, and to represent its own time without the political judgments or condemnation of today’s young writers imposed on it. History is what it is, and does not need to be argued with. Even when we argue, it still is only what it is. Attempting commentary or revision does not change it. This is basically the argument for NOT editing and censoring Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn because the characters don’t speak in later-20th-Century politically correct language.[It should also be noted that My Man Godfrey is one of only a handful of movies given a 100% rating by Rotten Tomatoes.]
Pallette’s line was said with such casual nonchalance, that there is no doubt that his attitude toward that 60% was fairly common. His very next line in the movie — in response to Lombard’s, “I don’t think it’s fair that you spend more on the government than you spend on your family…” — says, “That’s just the way it works.” It was actually a wide-spread attitude in the day — many people viewed their income tax as a way to show support for their country in dire and serious times. Their tax was a way to pitch in together to try to get out of the desperate mess that Wall Street and its global counterparts had created.
Last night, on the Late Show with David Letterman, Letterman and ABC news anchor Brian Williams were discussing the current economic situation, taxes etc, and Williams passed on his wife’s suggestion that there should be a box to check on tax forms where people like him (and Letterman) who clearly make too much money (his words) — so much more than the “not quite two nickles” they expected to be making in their lives — could say, “give my tax break money to education.”
There are those out there not so overcome by their own feelings of self-worth and entitlement that they understand their portion should be shared. Some are already philanthropists who fund huge projects all on their own (some are not) — but then that same philanthropy was also at work in the 1930’s — over and above the high income taxes.
Just as clearly, we’re all so far removed from the standard of living common in the 1890s, 1900s, 1910s and 1920s, that we hardly even recognize — and sometimes even deny — the embarrassment of riches we live in. We’ve forgotten the days of owning just one dish and fork and cup per person. We’ve forgotten that getting more dishes or forks or cups meant buying them from someone who knew how to make them, and paying those people for the hours and materials it took to finish them.
It’s also noteworthy that Godfrey, the butler, earns a monthly salary of $150 plus room and board in 1936 — and a $500 necklace was enough seed money to fund a fashionable work-relief project nightclub in Manhattan. This was at a time when my grandparents’ young family of 3 was living in the back store-room of their little dry goods store, on about $45 a month. Even when times were bad, times were good for a good butler in the land of fiction.
In 2004, My Man Godfrey was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for its historical and cultural significance (and because it’s a great movie….)
Because the movie is now in the public domain, you can watch it (albeit a very sad print) through many online sites. The restored black and white version, as well as a colorized version are available in CD format, and can be seen occasionally on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) .