By Christine Bamberger
My Man Godfrey
NOTE: If you’ve not seen this evening’s movie before, you may wish to enjoy our program note after viewing My Man Godfrey.
Does My Man Godfrey have a happy ending?
Somehow I have trouble believing that Godfrey Parke (William Powell) is going to have the happiness with Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) that the surrendering Dr. Cary Grant is slated to enjoy with Katharine Hepburn as Bringing Up Baby comes to its rollicking end. Nor do Powell and Lombard seem destined to share the bliss of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert after their road adventures in It Happened One Night. Poor Godfrey has never indicated much more than patience and politeness toward Irene, while her tantrums and flights of fancy have made her seem less like an alluring woman and more like a child (albeit a sometimes delightful one) with each ensuing scene.
Although her breathless good-heartedness is what charms him into becoming her family’s butler in the first place, and he readily challenges the superciliousness of her sister Cornelia (the marvelously icy Gail Patrick), there seems more of a sexual spark between Godfrey and Cornelia, even as he teaches his nemesis a firm lesson. Cornelia’s baiting has always seemed tinged with attraction to him, though it is not clear at first whether that is merely another tactic for annoying her sister.
Godfrey tells his friend Tommy (Mowbray) that he’s no longer obsessed with a woman who hurt him in Boston, but we get the sense that his ability to move on is not because he has met Irene—it is because he has a new outlook on life after experiencing what it is to be jobless and living in a dump by the East River with others who haven’t a choice in the matter. Godfrey goes on a bender that afternoon, but tellingly it comes after a confrontation with Cornelia. As immune to Cornelia’s approach as he is to Irene’s (once he has become part of the household, anyway), Godfrey finally makes the less flighty sister see how haughty and unfair she has been, and she seems to have a catharsis that one can believe will lead to a genuine redemption. But… Irene? When Godfrey becomes so frustrated with her that he calmly dumps her clothed into the shower and turns on the water, Irene concludes that this proves he is in love with her!
Victimization as act of love is of course a common theme in screwball comedy, but perhaps what is missing here is clear communication of a relationship other than the battle. Godfrey is not fooled for a moment by Irene’s posturing and whining, and indeed seems to be tolerating them with barely hidden disdain. Perhaps the same could be said about Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, but somehow Hepburn’s Susan Vance has the viewer believing by fadeout that she has so much ingenuity and verve that a topsy-turvy life will be fun with her, rather than tiresome. Claudette Colbert’s kooky heiress is down-to-earth enough to share a few sentimental moments with Clark Gable the reporter, and their interaction is laden with sexual promise. Lombard’s Irene is precious—and yet her shenanigans could get very old, very fast.
Don’t get me wrong—I count myself amongst those enamored of Carole Lombard. No actress plays gorgeous ditzes with more panache (Twentieth Century, Nothing Sacred, The Princess Comes Across, Mr. and Mrs. Smith), but in her other portrayals she manages to express the emotional vulnerability of the women she plays in dramatic roles, and some of the intelligence shines through. Adorable, hilarious, and frothy, Irene is an endearing character. It’s just that she is not a terribly desirable one! As Ed Sikov writes in “Screwball: Hollywood’s Madcap Romantic Comedies”, “…there’s little about Irene’s character as written that suggests she’s worth the trouble, and as a result the love relationship in My Man Godfrey is one of screwball comedy’s worst… there is no sense that this couple is compelled to love each other the way people are supposed to in screwball films. We’re left instead with the distinct impression that they simply haven’t anything else to do.”
It is interesting to compare the classic My Man Godfrey (1936) with a lesser-known MGM vehicle made two years later, Merrily We Live. The two romantic screwball comedies share a great many characteristics: dithery mothers (Alice Brady in My Man Godfrey/Billie Burke in Merrily We Live); weary, crotchety dads (Eugene Pallette/Clarence Kolb), human objects of sponsorship (William Powell and Mischa Auer/Brian Aherne); successful gentlemen posing as servants (William Powell/Brian Aherne); sultry brunette rivals to the blond leading lady (Gail Patrick/Ann Dvorak) and smart-alecky servants (Jean Dixon/Patsy Kelly and Marjorie Kane). Alan Mowbray appears in both these pictures: he plays a wealthy friend and former classmate of Godfrey’s and in Merrily We Live is flustered butler Grosvenor. Grosvenor is forever on the verge of quitting over the nerve-wracking zany chaos of his employer’s household, just as the maid warns Godfrey he will be if he tries to stick it out with the Bullocks.
Constance Bennett was originally cast for the Carole Lombard role in My Man Godfrey, but William Powell, borrowed from MGM by Universal, opined that his ex-wife Lombard would be perfect for the role and agreed to play butler-in-disguise Godfrey only if she were brought from Paramount for the occasion. As Jerry Kilbourne in Merrily We Live, Constance Bennett gets to play the carefree heiress role, but she avoids ditsy and plays it cool and knowing—though, like Lombard’s character, she has enough freedom from class restraints to fall in love with Wade Rawlins, the man whom she believes to be the family chauffeur. Like Powell, Brian Aherne is comfortable in his charade of servant, but his goal is more obviously romantic as he turns on the charm in his battle of wits with Jerry. He is mischievous and even earnest as he entertains the whims of the members of this family with whom he has fallen in. When Jerry concludes that “Rawlins” loves her, it is exactly by the same means that Irene realizes that Godfrey loves her—he douses her with water.
Merrily We Live lacks the surreal sophistication or attempted social conscience of the more famous My Man Godfrey—after all, it’s a Hal Roach comedy with touches of slapstick. As a result it is a lighter, warmer, sweeter bowl of meringue. Its family is more united despite their noisy struggles, and exhibits more humanity. They dwell in a bucolic if no less wealthy setting that seems to be in California rather than New York.
Perhaps My Man Godfrey is the more remembered film because of director La Cava’s acknowledgement of The Great Depression and Roosevelt’s “Forgotten Man:” Godfrey Parke may turn out to be a rich man, but at least he is one who has his eye on the plight of the poor and jobless and feels need to show a set of wealthy featherheads how meaninglessly a life they lead. The movie gleams with art deco splendor and glorious costumes, and the Broadway-sharp lines fly like beautiful darts that always hit the target dead-center.
It just isn’t clear how merrily Lombard and Powell will live.