The Flickchart Top 250: 6 left to go
I complain a lot on here about screwball comedies, but I hold the deep conviction that it's because most them, even the really famous ones, are not really very good. Witty fast-talking and star casting doesn't compensate for poor characters and shoddy plotting. However, there are some I like quite a bit, and My Man Godfrey presents me with a fine example of a screwball comedy from Hollywood's "Golden Age" that does everything pretty close to right.
The most far-fetched aspect of My Man Godfrey is the premise: a group of out-of-touch socialites visit a riverside shanty town hoping to collect a "forgotten man" as part of a decadent scavenger hunt. One of the slum's denizens, Godfrey (William Powell), is so revulsed at the notion that he shoves a haughty debutante (Gail Patrick) into a pile of ashes. This delights her sister, Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard), and Godfrey is so taken by the lack of cynicism and malice on the part of Irene, the he agrees to help her win the hunt to spite her dreadful sister. Oddly sophisticated, dignified and well-spoken, Godfrey is soon invited to butler for the Bullock family, one of the most dysfunctional in New York high society, where he tries to rebuild his life while concealing the truth about his past and fending off the lovestruck advances of the scatterbrained Irene.
One of my common gripes about screwball comedies is how they often require characters to behave as stupidly as possible as a source for laughs, but they seldom bother with motivating that stupidity within the realms of logic or credulity. Also, they often feature a zany swirl of loathsome characters but lack an appealing anchor. My Man Godfrey has the perfect foil in Godfrey, a smart and grounded central character in unusual circumstances who is always doing his best to navigate a working path through chaos. the Bullocks are a great source of humor, and although they are unhinged, each member has their own believable (if exaggerated) idiosyncrasies and foibles, and they act consistently within those largely harmless parameters. Importantly, director Gregory La Cava never idealizes the Bullocks, but keeps the weight of empathy squarely on Powell's capable shoulders, and the audience's sympathies reflects his own: we are annoyed by the Bullocks as he is, and come to like them as he does. This careful balance allows the comedy to flourish but never spin out of control, away from the relatable center.
I had only seen Powell in The Thin Man prior to this, and its appeal escaped me, but he is so solid and wry a presence in My Man Godfrey, that I'm compelled to give that series another shot. He ably sells the rather preposterous contrivance of his character without ever appearing contemptuous or mean-spirited. It's a strangely open-hearted performance behind such a cool and reserved demeanor. Lombard also gives a virtuoso comic performance, somehow keeping Irene sweet and appealing despite a parade of ludicrously immature behavior that should be grating, but it derives from a well of innocence that is unimpeachable.
La Cava nails the directing, from the gorgeously designed opening credits up until the very end, when My Man Godfrey tacks on an instant-wedding, which is a prevalent but often unearned button on these types of movies. It's the one significant false note in an otherwise splendid piece of fluffy entertainment.
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