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