Saturday, June 18, 2011

My Man Godfrey

Why on Earth did I catch this movie?  Good question.  It's a seventy-five year-old comedy, and I can barely stand most modern comedies, much less something that came out before the last time the Cubs were in the World Series.  Well, for starters, I love William Powell in the Thin Man movies, but they're all I've seen him in.  My Man Godfrey was also nominated for six Academy Awards.  So, while this could be be just indulging my fondness for a particular actor, the Oscar nominations imply that the film won't be a waste of my time.

Godfrey (William Powell) is living in a literal dump with a surprisingly friendly group of other homeless men during the Great Depression.  One night, a group of spoiled brat socialites show up, looking for one of the homeless men to play the part of a "forgotten man" for their spoiled socialite scavenger hunt.
One is scruffy, the other vacant.  Guess which is which.
Instead of knifing the pansies, the homeless guys shuffle away, leaving Godfrey to mock the idle rich and frighten most of them away.  One remains, though.  Young Irene (Carol Lombard) thought Godfrey was quite funny and brave for sticking up to the others --- particularly her awful older sister, Cornelia (Gail Patrick) --- and she manages to convince Godfrey to be her "forgotten man," if only to stick it to Cornelia.  Godfrey agrees, goes to the party and delivers a well-spoken put down of the idle rich in the Depression.  Irene is immediately enamored with Godfrey's promise --- such a smart, well-spoken homeless man! --- and she hires him to be her family's butler and her very own protege.  What follows is a witty man handling an awful family with wit and grace, decades before Benson.
And to think, fifty years later, a black man was allowed to be a butler on TV

The title really sums up the whole movie.  This movie rides on the character of Godfrey; it's a good thing he's supposed to be witty and charming, because that's William Powell's calling card.  Powell is very entertaining in this movie, delivering sharp comments throughout, but never seeming to tell the similar jokes the same way twice.  He was aided in his performance by a supporting cast that perfected the clueless (but generally nice) rich characters that were so common in films until the 1950s.  Carole Lombard (Powell's ex-wife!) gave a solid performance as the sweet but oh-so-dumb Irene.  I usually have a problem with overly ditzy roles, but Lombard turned that stupidity into a childishness that was more easily forgiven.
The rest of the family is more stereotypical than cute, but I'm sure they were all novel enough in 1936.  Gail Patrick was fine as the bitchy spoiled brat sister.  Alice Brady was surprisingly funny on occasion as the too-stupid-to-believe mother; while I don't have any proof of it, I am pretty sure that her line "She was white as a sheet" was sampled for the excellent song "Frontier Psychiatrist" by Avalanches.  The men were less entertaining.  Eugene Pallette played the idiot that was allowed to spoil his family and Mischa Auer played a very convincing freeloader.  Auer was more entertaining than he should have been, given his minor role, but I enjoyed his melodrama.

Gregory La Cava's direction didn't strike me as anything special, but I suppose that my modern perspective could be a little jaded.  He did manage to put up some gorgeous sets and all the actors were committed to their parts, with no one giving a poor performance.  I may not have liked all the performances, but they were all polished and as good as the script would allow them to be.  The ending is awfully abrupt, but the old school take on comedies made that a common occurrence.  This wasn't anything timeless, from a directorial standpoint, but it was a solid effort.

In an older and lauded film like this, the main question is how well it has aged.  For the most part, I would say "not too badly."  There are several lines of dialogue that underline just how long ago 1936 was (apparently, the terms "nitwit" and "scavenger hunt" were not part of the popular lexicon back then), but the movie is still able to retain its charm.  Charm it has, but the humor is a bit lacking.  It's just not very funny any more, because the social mores that were being pushed at the time are long gone now.
Get it?  He's uncomfortable!
The relationship between Godfrey and Irene is cute and Godfrey is certainly witty, but even his lines aren't sharp enough --- maybe because they're too nice --- to still be hilarious today.  I'm also not a big fan of the movie's character traits; Godfrey is so much smarter than the rich in this movie that it's a little insulting.  None of the exploits in the film stand out as particularly outrageous (aside from a few off-camera ones), and that's not a good thing in any comedy.  The characters are so pleasant and Godfrey is so clever that the script doesn't inhibit a modern viewing of this film.  It's not a timeless classic, but it's a little silly and still pretty cute.  If absolutely nothing else, I can happily say that this cute, but unexceptional, movie increased my appreciation for William Powell.

And here's the song I alluded to earlier.  Great song from a great album: Avalanches - Since I Left You.

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