Category: 1936

Before comedies had to rely on shocking amounts of obscenities or gross out humor, writers and directors were confident enough that their creation of absurdist situational humor and zany characters could deliver all the laughs they needed. I’m not dissing well-done raunchy humor. Judd Apatow remains the best thing to happen to movie comedies since Harold Ramis. But there was a day where comedies may have been significantly simpler but there were no less funny. And of course, the best Hollywood comedies of the classic era were the screwballs like Bringing Up Baby or It Happened One Night. 1936’s My Man Godfrey is a classic comedy in the screwball vein, and while it may not be as great the iconic films I just mentioned, it brings the laughs with a refreshing regularity.

In the waning days of the Great Depression, Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard), the daughter of a wealthy businessman, enlists the help of an intelligent and well-mannered homeless man to win a socialite scavenger hunt. After seeing the homeless man, Godfrey (Life With Father‘s William Powell), bullied by her wealthy peers, she invites him to come back to her home to be the new butler. Needing a job and eager for a chance to prove himself, Godfrey accepts the position but it becomes quickly apparent that the Bullock family  are a few cards short of a full deck. And when the audience discovers that Godfrey is actually the heir of a wealthy family himself, we join Godfrey on a ride as he tries to teach his condescending and eccentric bosses a lesson or two about life and humility.

Much like every William Powell role I can think of from this blog (Life With Father and How to Marry a Millionaire are the two that spring to mind), he  runs away as the best part of the whole film. Much to the opposite of one’s usual expectations, despite being the literal straight man of the film when matched against all of the crazies in the Bullock household, Powell still manages to get many of the best laughs. His only real competition is Eugene Pallette as the beleaguered head of the Bullock household. Powell simply has a pitch-perfect deadpan delivery, and like many of the best comedians, he can get deep chuckles with a simple wiggle of his eyebrow. That’s not to diminish the performance of his costars, especially Carole Lombard as the scatterbrained heiress who takes him in and develops an almost stalkerly crush on Mr. Godfrey.

The best screwball comedies pick up momentum like a rolling stone collects moss and My Man Godfrey is no exception. From the minute that Irene’s overbearing sister Cornelia (Gail Patrick) shows up at the dump to find Godfrey to the film’s non-stop series of revelations in the film’s final moments, My Man Godfrey gathers steam and rarely slows down the whole film. It’s very much a “talky” screwball and virtually every character except Godfrey speaks like they’ve just done a couple lines of speed (particularly Irene and her mother). Whether it’s a tea party that turns into an unexpected engagement celebration or Irene faking a fainting spell to get Godfrey’s attention, the film has gags and jokes aplenty and thankfully few fall flat.

Continuing my current trend of watching films that got really bad DVD transfer jobs, My Man Godfrey‘s transition to DVD was obviously (and sadly) not a labor of love. It looks bad and the audio is a mess. However, those small quibbles and the occasional moment here and there where the film doesn’t hit its comedic marks shouldn’t discourage fans of classic comedies for giving this film a spin. For a film that I was not anticipating enjoying, I found myself laughing out loud plenty of times throughout the film, and it’s another example of how classic comedies age better than classic dramas. I can only hope that when I inevitably watch the 1950s remake someday, it makes me laugh half as often.

Final Score: B

It is incredibly difficult for me to step into “classic” movies with any real untouched objectivity. An entire life of hearing critics, fans, and popular culture build them up as “the greatest” or “one of the greatest” nearly inevitably leads to some measure of disappointmen or occasionally complete dissatisfaction. In my review of Juno, I’ve termed it the “Juno effect” as I’ve discovered an ability to better appreciate these films once I’ve distanced them from my initial expectations. I bring all of this up because despite this tendency, every now and then, I come across a classic film truly deserving of that title. From Casablanca to Singin’ in the Rain to Rebel Without a Cause, there are plenty of great classic movies out there, and despite being a mostly silent film, 1936’s Modern Times is undoubtedly one of the funniest and most clever films I’ve watched to date. Who knew that purely visual storytelling and outrageous physical humor could be such a rich comedy gold mine.

Set in an age where industrialism has run rampant and economic hard times have created vast swaths of unemployed, Modern Times is a satirical look at its age. Starring Charlie Chaplin as the Little Tramp (for the very last time), we begin with the Tramp as a cog in the ever-turning machinery of a nearly dystopian and dehumanizing factory. After suffering a nervous breakdown from repeating the same inane actions over and over (as well as a bizarre encounter with a robot meant to feed workers so they never have to stop working), the Tramp goes crazy in the factory and after being mistaken for a Communist, the Tramp is shipped off to prison. After getting pardoned for stopping a prison break-out while the Tramp was hopped up on cocaine (yeah, you read that right), the Tramp meets a homeless girl (the gorgeous Paulette Goddard) who he befriends when saving her from the police. What follows is an ever increasing series of antics where the Tramp tries to get himself sent back to prison, mostly fails, attempts to acquire gainful employment, generally causes unintentional acts of wanton destruction, and penguin walk his way from one disaster to the next.

I was simply amazed by how political and relevant this film still seems despite being 75 years old. In his later years, Chaplin would become an expatriate to the United States (only returning many years later to accept an honorary Oscar) when he was falsely accused of being a Communist. However, it’s startlingly obvious from this film that his politics, nonetheless, were remarkably leftist. In our era of massive unemployment and the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, Chaplin’s vision of a Metropolis-esque factory system may have died, but his tale of survival in a world where corporate theft and wage slavery is ignored but stealing to survive is punished rings remarkably true. The fact that he was able to accomplish all of this with virtually no dialogue (until the end of the film, where the Tramp sings in French, any spoken dialogue was coming from machines, like the radio or a robot, or was the direct commands of the god-like Boss of the factory). Chaplin’s ability to craft a story almost completely from images is just as impressive as D.W. Griffith’s, and he manages to avoid all of the horrific racism in Griffith’s work.

I remember that in high school I tried to sit through one of Chaplin’s earlier picture; I think it was The Gold Rush. However, I immediately found it so boring that I wasn’t able to finish it. While I’m willing to chalk at least part of that to how much my tastes have evolved since high school, I can also definitively state that Modern Times was one of the most consistently hysterical films I’ve ever watched. With more knack for pure physical comedy than even the modern greats (like Chris Farley or John Belushi), Chaplin throws himself around the screen with a disarmingly elegant grace. While the Tramp is always destroying everything around him, Chaplin is in such complete control of his motions and moves with such fluidity during the more choreographed sequences that you can only stand in awe of his physical presence. All of my favorite comedies of the modern era are incredibly dialogue heavy full of witty and clever conversations. For me to enjoy humor that is so entirely based on Chaplin’s ability to exploit his body for jokes is really just a testament to Chaplin’s timeless genius.

The film isn’t quite perfect as not every scene can maintain the outrageous heights of its most hysterical moments. As unbelievably beautiful as Paulette Goddard was (she was Charlie Chaplin’s wife when the film was made), she was no comedic match for Chaplin and the scenes focusing primarily on her didn’t do much to add to the humor of the film. Other than those minor complaints, this was one of the most remarkable comedies I’ve ever seen, and it simply goes to remind me that despite my claims of encyclopedic knowledge of cinema, there are still plenty of great films out there that I’ve simply never seen. I’m pretty sure that The Great Dictator is also on my list for this blog, as it also comes near the top of lists of great Chaplin pictures. For any fan of comedy, you are doing yourself a disservice by not watching this true piece of comedy genius. Whether you like older films or not, and even if you could never see yourself watching a silent film, you need to move past those prejudices and give this movie a chance. You will not be disappointed.

Final Score: A

Why, God, why? My very first Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movie, 1936’s Swing Time, was turning out to be not just a good but a great classic movie musical/comedy. But then, a cultural byproduct of our nation’s racist past reared its ugly head and nearly ruined the entire picture for me. The sight of Fred Astaire dancing around the stage in blackface like he’s Al Jolson was so offensive and it made me so uncomfortable that I almost turned the film off. Thankfully, it was an incredibly small portion of an otherwise fantastic film, but it was an unfortunate reminder of a part of our past that we have fortunately moved on from.

 Swing Time is about a gambler named Lucky Garner (Fred Astaire) who is tricked by members of the dancing troupe he travels with into missing his wedding. He makes a deal with the girl’s father to raise $25,000 in New York City in exchange for giving Lucky one more chance to marry his daughter. Lucky sets out to New York City with his dim-witted father (Victor Moore) to make his fortune. However, his plans are side-tracked when he bumps into Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers), a dancing instructor that quickly steals his heart. Now, Lucky has to find a way to never make his $25,000 so that he can stay with Carol and quickly become one of the biggest dance numbers in New York City.

 The film is a musical, but the songs in it weren’t actually all that memorable. It won an Oscar for Best Song, but I honestly could have cared less about most of the music in the film. However, the dancing was just phenomenal. When Ginger and Fred step on to the dance floor, it’s just a sight to behold. Their ability to dance and entertain is without peers. I can’t remember the last time I saw a couple dancing that made we want to leave my house immediately and sign up for dance lessons this much since the last Cirque Du Soleil show that I saw.

 Besides from their dancing, Ginger and Fred also made a fantastic comedic pair. Ginger Rogers was great as a feisty, strong female lead, and Fred Astaire was incredibly charming. I definitely know why their one of movie history’s most beloved and enduring pairs. They had a natural romantic chemistry on screen that I’ve only ever seen between Bogie and Bacall as well as Woody Allan and Diane Keaton. I was genuinely invested in their romance on screen. The movie also had me laughing out loud at several moments. Victor Moore was just hilarious as Lucky’s idiotic father . Dramas this old may hold very little favor for me, but most of the classic comedies I’ve reviewed for this blog have aged fairly well, and this movie is no exception.

If you like old musicals and old comedies, I can recommend this without hesitation. I really wish the scene with Fred Astaire in blackface did not exist, but I have to remember that this film is very much a product of the era that it was made, and although I find the scene incredibly offensive now, it probably wasn’t that offensive back then. I’m glad this was the first Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movie that I’ve seen though because now I want to see even more of their films. Their dancing is electric and their chemistry is superb. I can’t wait to see more.

 Final Score: B+