Tag Archive: William Powell

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

Life With Father

Films whose sole purpose seems to be displaying a specific slice of family life as seen through their own cultural and historical lens do not often age well. Older films are almost without fail so optimistic and idealistic that modern cynical audiences have trouble suspending their disbelief over “perfect” family units. Even families of older cinema who were supposed to be semi-disfunctional seem downright Leave It to Beaver to modern viewers. Clarence Day Jr.’s Life With Father (I believe) still holds the record for longest running non-musical play on Broadway and 1947’s film adaptation was a massive box office draw. But for this modern viewer, not even the direction of Casablanca‘s Michael Curtiz could save this film from being overly-long, overly sentimental drivel with easily the worst Film-to-DVD transfer job that I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

Based on the playwrights memories of his childhood, Life With Father is a sentimental tale of the domineering (but ultimately loveable) Clarence Day Sr. (How to Marry a Millionaire‘s William Powell). As the patriarch of the massive Day brood, he’s a penny-pinching, sermon-delivering curmudgeon. Tended to by his loving wife Vinnie (My Favorite Wife‘s Irene Dunne) and beset upon by his four children, Clarence tries to assert his authority over his family and his life even when it quickly becomes apparent that his wife and kids have the real say. After the family is visited by a cousin and her young friend (Giant‘s Elizabeth Taylor) who catches the eye of Clarence Jr., Clarence Sr.’s life is only thrown into more upheaval when it’s discovered that he’s never been baptized.

William Powell and Irene Dunne are serviceable as the hen-pecked husband and the one doing the pecking, and between those two and an astonishingly young (but always beautiful) Elizabeth Taylor, they are the only reasons to watch the film. The exceedingly rare occasions where I actually laughed out loud during the film all involved Powell’s spot-on turn as the gruff father. At one point, his eldest son and Elizabeth Taylor’s character have an argument where the son makes Elizabeth Taylor cry. When Powell tells Clarence Jr. that he’s glad to see his own held his own in the argument, I nearly spit Dr. Pepper all over my television screen. It was the perfect response. And watching Irene Dunne fast-talk her away around Clarence Sr. to convince him that impossible math adds up was consistently charming.

Sadly, the writing didn’t live up to the potential chemistry of the stars. Although William Powell was able to make me laugh, I probably laughed out loud less than five times the entire film and that counts slight chuckles. The only big laugh came from the aforementioned incident with Elizabeth Taylor. The film would set up long, meandering scenes where William Powell would go on seemingly endless monologues. There were few jokes, puns, sight gags, or inherently funny situations. The comedy was meant to arise by the subversion of expectations between what Clarence Sr. thought about his family and what was really going on, but let’s be honest. That was never actually all that funny. The best moments came when they played Clarence Sr.’s stubborness and total obliviousness to the world around him for maximum comedic value such as him trying to figure out how his wife returning a pug meant he could  now afford to buy his son an expensive suit.

This isn’t something I usually harp on (because I’m not an expert on film transfer), but as I mentioned earlier, this was one of the worst transfer jobs I’ve ever seen. This looked worse than a VHS copy of a film (unless I simply don’t remember how bad VHS looked which is possible). The resolution of the image was worse than 480p (probably around 270p), the color would fade in and out (although that’s semi-common in early Technicolor films which this definitely was), you would see the sorts of lines and static that you associate with ancient VHS cassettes, and the audio was atrocious. The film is in the public domain which means that any Tom, Dick, and Harry can release it on DVD if they wish, and because of that cheapness, the film looks horrendous (which is a shame because it’s obvious that the original color scheme for the film was extraordinarily vibrant).

Should you watch this film? Not if you like good movies. Perhaps, if you don’t find Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best to be sickeningly idealized, then you could enjoy this film. For anyone who demands even the most remote semblance of reality to their portrayal of family life will find this film to be as much fantasy as Lord of the Rings. Still, it has its moments. I may not have so much as grinned for the first half of the film, but once it began to find it’s footing, I found myself finding the film less unbearable and more simply unfortunate and ill-constructed. Perhaps, I’m just too much of a jaded, modern cynic to appreciate something innocent like this, but that is what it is.

Final Score: C-