In today’s world, especially during the midst of a once in a century event (e.g. a global pandemic), laughter can be just the cure. A good comedy allows one to disappear into the world presented by the film. For the duration of the film, the viewer can forget about his or her troubles. In the film’s world, the viewer’s tax problems, health issues, financial struggles, relationship woes, etc. do not exist. A good comedy will endure, continue to entertain and remain funny, no matter how many times it has been seen by the viewer. One comedy that fits this bill is My Man Godfrey. I have seen this film at least a dozen times and it never fails to make me laugh.
My Man Godfrey tells the story of the wealthy Bullock family, prominent figures of the New York social set. This family is completely insane. At the beginning of the film, we meet the grown Bullock daughters, Cornelia (Gail Patrick) and Irene (Carole Lombard). Cornelia and Irene are taking part in a scavenger hunt, an event put on to entertain the rich for the evening. This scavenger hunt requires the participant to locate all the items on the list and return them to headquarters. Each wealthy family makes up one team and the members of the team work together to locate each object on the list. Cornelia and Irene are in search of a “forgotten man” (i.e. homeless, destitute man). They come across Godfrey (William Powell).
Cornelia instantly makes an enemy of Godfrey when she offers him $5, making it seem like she’s doing Godfrey a favor. When she informs him that it is part of a scavenger hunt, he is irritated and Cornelia ends up in an ash pile. Irene, on the other hand endears herself to Godfrey when she reveals herself to be of a much kinder temperament to Cornelia. Enchanted by Irene and wanting to help her beat the snobbish Cornelia, Godfrey agrees to return to the scavenger hunt’s headquarters as Irene’s forgotten man. With Godfrey’s help, Irene wins the scavenger hunt.
Godfrey gives an amazing speech at the scavenger hunt headquarters. He chastises the rich for using the less fortunate as a form of entertainment, and does not mince words. After making his contempt for the rich folks’ activities clear, Godfrey leaves in a huff. Feeling bad for upsetting Godfrey, Irene chases after him and offers him a job as her protégé and family butler. Godfrey accepts the position. The next day, Godfrey arrives for his first day of work and quickly learns what he has gotten himself into.
The Bullock family is bonkers. The matriarch of the family, Angelica (Alice Brady), has her own protégé, Carlo (Mischa Auer). Carlo is supposedly a musician, however we never hear him play more than one part of one song. Alexander (Eugene Pallette), the patriarch of the Bullock clan, is exasperated by Carlo, whom he sees as a mooch and drain on the family’s finances. There is a hilarious scene where a fed up Alexander asks Carlo to accompany him. We then hear glass breaking. Alexander returns and states that Carlo “had to leave very suddenly.” Alexander is the straight-man to the family’s antics, but even he has his moments of insanity. Cornelia is a snob and very much resents Godfrey’s presence in the family’s home. She does not hide her contempt for him. Irene however, is in love with Godfrey and does not hide her feelings for him whatsoever. Finally, Molly (Jean Dixon), the wise-cracking maid is Godfrey’s experienced counterpart whose sassiness is perfect for showing Godfrey “the ropes” of handling the various temperaments of the members of the Bullock family.
One particularly funny moment in the film has Irene hosting a party for her friends while experiencing a moment of depression after being rebuffed by Godfrey. She walks around the party in a dramatic moment saying things like: “life is but an empty bubble,” and “what is food?” Carole Lombard’s Irene is the key to the film’s comedy. She is so hilariously wacky, but at the core is just a sweet young woman who wants someone she can love. Godfrey is that person with whom Irene is completely smitten. However, the trick is to win over Godfrey. William Powell’s portrayal of Godfrey brings a steady, calming influence to the film. Without the straight-man Godfrey character, this film would be completely off the rails and would probably be really irritating. Godfrey’s looks of exasperation and sheer surprise make him a very funny character in his own right.
I love this movie. Irene, Godfrey and Angelica make me laugh and never fail to make me feel better. My Man Godfrey is one of my all-time favorite screwball comedies. This movie is a riot with each scene funnier than the last. I can imagine myself living in the Great Depression, scraping up some change to see this film in the theater. I can imagine myself laughing hysterically at this film and feeling better because I was able to forget about standing in the breadlines for just a few minutes. This is the power that movies have–escapism. A film that can whisk the viewer away and capture their imagination is a film that will endure for generations. My Man Godfrey is one such film that has endured for 85 years and will continue to last because it is hilarious. It never fails to make me feel better through its power to make me laugh.
Some of my favorite quotes from the film:
GODFREY: My purpose in coming here tonight was two-fold: firstly, I wanted to aid this young lady. Secondly, I was curious to see how a bunch of empty-headed nitwits conducted themselves. My curiosity is satisfied. I assure you it’ll be a pleasure to go back to a society of really important people.Godfrey telling off the rich folk for using the less fortunate as entertainment fodder
GODFREY: These flowers just came for you, miss. Where shall I put them?
IRENE: What difference does it make where one puts flowers when one’s heart is breaking?
GODFREY: Yes, miss. Shall I put them on the piano?Godfrey dryly reacting to Irene’s over-the-top dramatic behavior
CARLO: Oh Money! Money! Money! The Frankenstein monster that destroys souls!
ANGELICA (to ALEXANDER): Please don’t say anything more about it! You’re upsetting Carlo!Carlo reacting to Alexander’s rant about money and Angelica trying to protect her mooching protégé.
IRENE: What is food?Irene is dramatically moping around the house and trying to sound philosophical.