My Man Godfrey (1936)
My Man Godfrey (1936) is the story of an eccentric Park Avenue heiress who meets a “forgotten man” living in the City Dump and hires him as her butler. He arrives in the mansion to find a positively batty mother, a talentless but hungry pianist protege, a bewildered and frustrated father, and a conniving and cruel sister. It’s a classic comedy and one of the best examples of a madcap heiress film.
The film opens with one of the coolest title sequences ever. The credits flash and fade on a city skyline, blinking like lights on a marquee. It is as though an entire city is displaying the cast and crew for our pleasure.
And what a cast and crew! We’ve got Carole Lombard as Irene Bullock, the dizzy socialite. This is the role that would solidify Lombard as a top comedienne, and would push her over the top in terms of popularity and salary. In 1937, Lombard became the highest paid movie-star in Hollywood with a $450,000 contract with Paramount.
William Powell plays Godfrey, the forgotten man turned butler. Director Gregory La Cava lobbied for Powell, telling Universal that he’d only direct the movie if Powell was borrowed from MGM to play Godfrey.
Universal wanted Constance Bennett, another great blonde screwball actress, to play Irene, but then Powell said he’d only play the part if Carole Lombard got the role. He said that Lombard reminded him of Irene, and that she was the only one who should play the part. So that’s how we end up with Gregory La Cava directing William Powell and Carole Lombard.
Powell and Lombard had been married in 1931, but the union only lasted until 1933. The divorce wasn’t nasty and the pair remained good friends. Fortunately for us, they obviously worked together extremely well despite their personal history.
As you can see from the credit sequence, this movie brings Carole Lombard’s constant costume designer and cinematographer together again. They both worked at Paramount, but Lombard was powerful enough to demand, and get, the people that she wanted on her movies. Travis Banton designed her gowns, as he did for her in Hands Across the Table, Love Before Breakfast, We’re Not Dressing, The Princess Comes Across, and for the movies Easy Living and Cover Girl. Ted Tetzlaff shot ten of Lombard’s films, including My Man Godfrey, Hands Across the Table, Love Before Breakfast, and The Princess Comes Across, as well as Easy Living, The More the Merrier, and Notorious.
Morrie Ryskind wrote the screenplay for this movie, with help from Eric Hatch, on whose novel, 1011 Fifth, the film is based. Ryskind and La Cava both liked to improvise and workshop ideas, so some of the script was “written” on set with Lombard, Powell, La Cava, and Ryskind bouncing ideas and dialogue back and forth. This lends the film a charming spontaneity and speed. Watch carefully or you’ll miss some wonderful one-liners!
The camera pans right past the credits skyline and rests on the City Dump. Men are silhouetted against small fires, shacks, and smoke. Soon we meet Duke, alias Godfrey (Powell), advising one of his pals that “prosperity is just around the corner.” “It’s been there a long time, too,” is the cynical reply…
This movie was made during the Depression, and this Hooverville full of decent, good men who ran into bad luck, stands in stark contrast to the glitzy world of the Bullocks.
Soon these worlds collide for the first time when two shiny cars pull up at the dump. Out slides gorgeous, dark, polished Cornelia Bullock (Gail Patrick) in black satin and fur, with her black hair perfectly coiffed. Patrick made a career out of playing the leading lady’s nemesis, and this is one of her best roles.
As Cornelia descends into the dump, her sister Irene jumps out of her car. She’s in a tizzy because she doesn’t want Cornelia to beat her again. In a strong contrast to Cornelia, Irene has blonde curls in a disarrayed halo about her face, and she is wearing a glorious frock and coat of silvery beads. She absolutely glows even in the low light.
Turns out the Bullock girls are on a high-society scavenger hunt. One of their tasks is to find a “forgotten man” and bring him back to the Waldorf-Ritz hotel. Fun fact: there is no Waldorf-Ritz. The script merges two iconic luxury hotels, the Waldorf Astoria and the Ritz-Carlton, into a made-up amalgamation.
Cornelia finds Godfrey and tells him she’ll give him five dollars if he’ll come back to the Waldorf Ritz with her. Irene watches the exchange in dismay, certain that Cornelia will get her way and win, as she always does.
But Cornelia stumbled upon the wrong forgotten man. Godfrey lets this spoiled brat know what he thinks of her little game, advancing upon her until she falls into an ash pile.
Cornelia is furious and leaves at once. Irene is overjoyed and can’t stop giggling. She stays behind and tells Godfrey that she’s always wanted to push Cornelia into an ash pile, and he actually did it!
The conversation moves on into charming non-sequitors and breathless half-sentences. Godfrey is slightly amused, and rather intrigued by this young woman who always loses to her mean older sister, and who tells him that using human beings like that in the scavenger hunt is “rather sordid, when you think about it.”
Their dynamic is very much like a patient teacher and a silly, somewhat careless child who wants to be better, and has that potential. You can watch this wonderful scene here.
Godfrey volunteers to be Irene’s scavenger hunt “prize” so that she can win the game and beat Cornelia. They arrive at the glitzy hotel, Irene in her glamorous evening gown and Godfrey in his shabby coat.
It is complete chaos at the Waldorf-Ritz with high-society ladies and gents running around with random objects. Two gentlemen at the bar discuss what they see in this memorable exchange:
One couple with a goat sticks out even among the wild throng; the skinny grey-haired man at the bar points them out to Mr. Bullock:
It’s a fabulous, funny moment, followed by many more. Mrs. Bullock (Alice Brady as a wildly clueless, batty old broad) arrives at the judge’s table with her goat and asks what her next task is.
One of the hunt’s officials, played by Franklin Pangborn, shouts to Mrs. Bullock over the din of the crazed crowd that she needs to find a forgotten man and a bowl of Japanese goldfish.
Mrs. Bullock repeats her new task to herself, but quickly gets it confused. Soon she’s telling people that she’s off to find a “bowl of Japanese men and a forgotten goldfish.” This is pretty typical for Irene and Cornelia’s mother.
Irene brings Godfrey to the judges where he is asked some questions to verify his identity as a forgotten man. Pangborn even feels Godfrey’s whiskers to ensure they are real, explaining that another group tried to fool the judges by putting fake whiskers on one of their own party.
Godfrey passes the tests, cheered on by an adoring Irene:
No sooner does Irene have the trophy than Godfrey gives a scathing speech to the assembled crowd, berating them for their stupid, harmful entertainment. Irene drops her trophy and runs after Godfrey, apologizing for bringing him to the hotel to be humiliated. She asks if she can repay him in some way for helping her. He asks if she has any jobs lying around…her response is “Can you butle?”
Before we know it, Godfrey is the new Bullock butler. Cornelia arrives; she’s furious at losing to Irene, and she has not forgiven Godfrey…You can watch this scene here.
The Bullock family got more than they bargained for out of this scavenger hunt!
Costume break! Here is Lombard’s white beaded ensemble. Note the scalloped hems on the sleeves, coat, and dress. It shimmers and drapes beautifully:
Here it is on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London:
If you’d like some more great images and information about this gown and the star sapphire brooch at the neck, visit this great site, Kathleen Lynagh: Designing Re-Creative Jewelry for Film and TV.
The night ends here for us, but the next morning we find out that Irene stole a hansom cab’s horse and rode it into the house, and Cornelia broke a bunch of windows on 5th Avenue. She really hated losing to Irene! Their misbehavior demonstrates an important difference between the sisters: they’re both spoiled brats, but where Irene is clueless, sweet, and harmless, Cornelia is cruel, manipulative, and harmful.
The next morning, Godfrey arrives at the Bullock mansion and meets the family’s maid, Molly (Jean Dixon). Molly isn’t interested in the new butler, as there is a new butler nearly every day. Turns out the Bullock household has a very high turnover…she doesn’t even bother to find out his name:
Molly advises him to keep his suitcase and hat by the door so he can grab it on his way out. She says that the family is “nutty,” describes Mrs. Bullock as “the mother type,” and calls the bedrooms “cages;” she has worked there a long time.
Molly sends Godfrey to Mrs. Bullock’s room, warning him that she is most likely hungover. Godfrey handles Mrs. Bullock beautifully. When he emerges Molly is waiting in the hallway with his hat and suitcase, but when she learns that he is staying, she sends him to Cornelia’s room. That doesn’t go as well, but he fares better with Irene.
At first Irene doesn’t recognize him without his whiskers, but then she begs him to sit down and talk to her:
There’s hardly room on the bed since her feathered negligee is so huge, but Godfrey chats with her for a while, learning, with a bit of alarm, that he is to be her “protege.” Her mother has a protege, and Irene wants one, too.
Godfrey, ever aware of a butler’s duties, leaves as soon as he is able.
Molly left his things by the stairs right outside of Irene’s room, assuming he would decide to quit his job after seeing all three Bullock ladies in the morning. She was wrong. Godfrey is still the butler, but no one bothered to tell Mr. Bullock, who watches a strange man leave his daughter’s bedroom, pick up a suitcase, and descend the stairs:
Mr. Bullock has removed his jacket and is warning Godfrey that he was a boxing champion in his youth before the misunderstanding is understood. Fortunately Godfrey and Molly are able to convince Mr. Bullock that Godfrey is the new butler before any punches are thrown.
The zany misadventures continue from there. Cornelia is displeased at the new butler, and makes sure that he knows it. While he rubs a spot on her shoe, she delivers this line:
Brrr! Irene enters the room in a new, rather incredible pair of “pajamas:”
Back to the story: Mr. Bullock tells the family that they’re spending far too much money. But they don’t take him seriously. Mrs. Bullock is so clueless that this is her response when Mr. Bullock says he’s lost a lot of money lately: “Well, maybe you left it in your other suit!” There are certainly parallels between the frustrated patriarch in Easy Living with his extravagant family, and Mr. Bullock.
Cornelia does try to convince her father that Godfrey should be fired, since they know nothing about him, but then Irene throws a tantrum and the subject is dropped.
Irene’s childish fit provides a perfect opportunity for Mrs. Bullock’s protege, Carlo (Mischa Auer, who plays one of the detectives in The Princess Comes Across), to showcase his gorilla impression. Mrs. Bullock claims that it will cheer Irene up, but she seems alternately terrified and annoyed. Godfrey and Mr. Bullock’s reactions to Carlo’s capering about the room and pretending to pick fleas from the dog are priceless.
Irene calms down, and her family leaves the room. She whispers something to Godfrey. He leans closer to hear it, and she kisses him! Shocking! Turns out she doesn’t want him to just be her protege–she’s fallen in love with him! He’s not excited about this turn of events.
So now Irene is in love with the butler, and poor Godfrey is just trying to be a good butler!
In case you haven’t noticed, Irene is prone to childish drama. She is hosting a tea party but wears a black funereal frock just perfect for melodramatic, love sick poses. Unfortunately for Irene, Cornelia mocks her endlessly, ruining the grand pathos of the thing:
And Godfrey remains professional, simply asking where Irene would like to sandwiches to be served.
The tea party is a great success, despite Irene’s moping. Everything is going swimmingly until Tommy Gray (Alan Mowbray) arrives and spots Godfrey. He greets him like an old friend, until Godfrey hushes him and tells the stunned crowd that he used to be Mr. Gray’s valet. But there’s something funny going on!
Tommy then tells the room that Godfrey has a wife and five children…this sends Irene reeling. She panics and tells her buddies that she’s engaged to one of the fellows (Grady Sutton) at the party. He knows nothing about it, but seems pretty dumb and goes along with it. Or perhaps everyone is just used to Irene doing things like this.
Meanwhile, Tommy and Godfrey make a secret lunch date, but Cornelia overhears…and Irene cries on the stairs as she watches Godfrey go about his butler business after she announces her engagement:
When Tommy and Godfrey meet at this beautiful art deco restaurant, Cornelia is there.
Set design break!
Look at how gloriously geometric, shiny, and “modern” the kitchen is! White and chrome, very 1930s.
The main room of the house is a little fussier with the elaborate screens and draperies, but still white, white, white! Notice the extreme foregrounding of the lamp in this shot:
It gives the setup some depth and interest, and makes a nice pop when Godfrey turns the lamp on.
Anyway, back to the lunch. We learn that Godfrey is actually Godfrey Parke, of the extremely distinguished, wealthy Boston Parkes. He had an unfortunate love affair, got very low, and went down to the river, thinking he’d throw himself in. But he met some of the forgotten men down there and stayed. His family is telling people he’s in South America, and Godfrey doesn’t want his secret getting out.
Cornelia engineers a fake telephone call for Tommy so she can get Godfrey by himself. Their conversation does not go well, and ends with Godfrey telling Cornelia exactly what he thinks of her:
She’s got a wicked gleam in her eye, and once she leaves, Godfrey gets drunk.
He returns home, still very tipsy, to find Molly and Irene weeping over their unrequited love for Godfrey. Poor Molly is in love with him, too!
But Godfrey has more pressing things to worry about. Cornelia has hatched a devilish plan. She waits until Godfrey is out of his room, pausing dramatically by that incredible railing:
Then she sneaks in and out of Godfrey’s room. Then she sits down in the star-bordered dining room as though nothing happened.
But then she makes a startling announcement: her pearl necklace is missing! She’s already called the police, and once they arrive, she just happens to mention that Godfrey did not come from an employment agency, and they really don’t know anything about him.
The search for the pearls moves to Godfrey’s room. He is still drunk, but assists in the search as best as he can. Irene, in a gown of long white fringe, watches with alarm.
Cornelia seems rather smug, but the smugness disappears when the search of Godfrey’s mattress fails to turn up her necklace.
Mr. Bullock watches Cornelia and realizes that something is not right. He sends the policemen away with his apologies and the promise of a check for the pension fund. Then he scolds Cornelia in the foyer, telling her the joke is on her because the necklace wasn’t insured. Look at how Tetzlaff casts shadows of the staircase on the wall behind them. Lovely!
Meanwhile, a suddenly sober Godfrey gives a grim smile…
Fun fact: Gregory La Cava and Powell had a disagreement about the character of Godfrey. So they took a bottle of scotch and spent several hours discussing it until they’d resolved their issue.
The next day, La Cava came to work, with a headache, but Powell didn’t show up. La Cava received a telegram from Powell with this explanation:”WE MAY HAVE FOUND GODFREY LAST NIGHT BUT WE LOST POWELL. SEE YOU TOMORROW.”
Godfrey and Tommy visit the Dump, where Godfrey tells Tommy how the men he met there were the best men he’d ever known. He points out a former bank president who used his personal funds to reimburse his account holders during the run on the banks, for instance.
All these men want or need is an honest job, and Godfrey has an idea, though we don’t get specifics. The Depression certainly comes center stage at some points in this film before fading into the background of screwball madcapery.
Next thing we know, we are getting some crucial information from this handy gossip column:
So several months have passed, Irene’s fake engagement is over, and tongues are wagging about Irene’s love for her butler.
Irene is thrilled to see Godfrey again. She follows him to the kitchen and asks if she can dry the dishes and talk to him. They have a lovely conversation where Irene tells him she loves him and Godfrey tries to let her down gently. He also tells her that it is about time for him to leave. She cries.
It’s an interesting conversation, given the actors, because they talk about how they’d make good or bad husband or wives, and how they are or are not suited to each other. Wonder if that was awkward at all for the divorced couple?
How chic is Irene’s outfit in this scene?
Anyway, Cornelia isn’t finished with Godfrey. Her trip to Europe did not make her any nicer. She tells him to come with her for a ride so they can discuss a few things. Poor Irene walks in and thinks the worst:
She “faints” to keep Godfrey from going with Cornelia:
Fun fact: that is not Powell carrying Lombard up the stairs. A sprightly stand-in jogged up the staircase with Miss Lombard slung over his shoulder.
Godfrey is looking for smelling salts when he notices Irene watching him. She’s faking!
So he puts her in the shower:
It is amazing. You can watch it here.
Instead of being angry or humbled, Irene is overjoyed! She thinks that Godfrey loves her–surely he would not have put her in the shower otherwise! It is not entirely rational, but it is adorable and screwball.
Godfrey resigns. But not before saving the family.
Mr. Bullock announces that he is bankrupt, and might even be going to jail once people discover the clever/illegal tricks he was using to try to stay afloat. Godfrey steps in to save the day. He tells the family (all but Irene, who is changing out of her wet evening dress) that he knew of Mr. Bullock’s money troubles and took certain steps. Naturally, Mrs. Bullock is clueless.
Somehow Godfrey saved Mr. Bullock’s company, and the pearl necklace helped. He changed it into gold, then stock, then back to pearls, and he returns it to a shamed Cornelia. The evil queen actually cries.
Off Godfrey goes to the Dump, which is now a swanky, popular nightclub. This was Godfrey’s secret project! He built the club and employed the forgotten men. The pearl necklace and Tommy Gray gave him the capital to get started, but now it’s going strong! Even the mayor is there!
And soon Irene is there, too. She arrives with a big basket of food. She’s planning to stay. Godfrey never had a chance.
The mayor steps in to marry them before Godfrey knows what is happening. And the film ends with this wonderful line in this wonderful scene:
You can watch it here. I have some doubts about the viability of this relationship, but it would definitely never be boring.
Anyway, the film was a big hit. It was nominated for six Academy Awards: Best Actor for William Powell, Best Actress for Carole Lombard, Best Supporting Actor for Mischa Auer, Best Supporting Actress for Alice Brady, Best Direction for Gregory La Cava and Best Screenplay for Eric Hatch and Morrie Ryskind. But it didn’t win any! It is the only movie to receive nominations in all four acting categories but not a nomination for Best Picture.
My Man Godfrey was re-made in 1957 with June Allyson as Irene and David Niven as Godfrey, but the sparkling wit, madcap sensibility, and Depression backdrop of the original did not make the transition. It’s very dull in comparison.