Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Gregory La Cava | My Man Godfrey

by Douglas Messerli

Eric Hatch, Morrie Ryskind and Gregory La Cava (screenplay, based on a story of Eric Hatch), Gregory La Cava (director) My Man Godfrey / 1936

Long ago I heard a commentator say that the difference between the Marx Brothers and the Beatles was that the former team created chaos in a orderly and uptight world, whereas the latter were cool and controlled in a world of chaos.

You might say that a similar difference exists between Charlie Chaplin, for example, the little tramp who, although well-intentioned, sweet, and romantic, is constantly out of sorts with a priggish society; Chaplin, no matter how hard he tries, will never be anything but a tramp on the outskirts of society, and the humor of his films lies in that fact.

In Gregory La Cava's screwball comedy, My Man Godfrey, however, it is the tramp who lives the exemplary ordered life of propriety, as opposed to the nut cases of the wealthy Bullock House, including the snippy and mean-spirited, "Park Avenue brat," Cornelia (Gail Patrick)—who rides horses into the family library—the befuddled and always slightly hung-over mother (Alice Brady), and the truly wacky Irene (wonderfully played by Carole Lombard) who takes on the tramp as a "responsibility," just has her mother has adopted as her protégé, Carlo (the absurdly funny Mischa Auer) who does little but play "Ochi chyornye" and mope. He can also cleverly imitate a chimpanzee.

Encountered in a pile of ashes in the city dump, Godfrey (William Powell) is one of the requirements, a "forgotten man," for a society scavenger hunt, which—because of his agreement to participate—allows Irene to beat her sister for the first time in her life. Having just lost their recent butler (butlers evidently come in and go in the Bullock house with great regularity), she hires the penniless man, fighting her mother, sister, and even her bungling, forbearing businessman father for Godfrey's retention. And when Godfrey turns out to be the perfect butler, nearly all the family members, with the exception of Cornelia, are delighted, the maid, as well as Irene, falling in love with him.

Godfrey seems at home in his new position, if only he might have a "home," even if it is only a bedroom. Without any social constrictions, Cornelia enters his room, imagines a love relationship with him, and competes for his attentions around other family members. In short, she behaves like a "tramp," while Godfrey is all restraint, bound in protocol. As he asks Irene, "Hasn't anyone ever told you about certain proprieties?" When Godfrey attempts to explain, Irene answers, referring to her mother, "No she hasn't. She rambles on quite a bit, but then she never has anything to say."

We soon perceive, moreover, that the chaos at the center of this family is similar to the lives of nearly all the well-to-do the film represents. The competitors of the scavenger search appear to be more out of some vast madhouse scene than working for a good cause. As Mr. Bullock quips: "All you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people."

Similarly, a party in his own house is filled with empty-headed and self-admiring fools, including Godfrey's former friend, Tommy Gray (Alan Mowbray), whom Godfrey later admits, doesn't have the ability to think. Tommy almost spills the beans over Godfrey's true identity, and Cornelia smells a rat. Meanwhile, Irene, angry over Godfrey's lack of attention, declares she's gotten engaged. To whom, everyone wants to know? Irene tosses a name into the air, while the owner of that name, Charlie Van Rumple, becomes utterly flummoxed. Mrs. Bullock sums up her guests' mindsets through her confusion upon the arrival of her husband:

ANGELICA BULLOCK: Oh, Alexander, you missed all the excitement.
ALEXANDER BULLOCK: What's going on?
ANGELICA BULLOCK: Oh, let me see. I knew what it was I wanted to
say, but somehow it slipped my mind.
ALEXANDER BULLOCK: What's the matter with Irene?
ANGELICA BULLOCK: Oh, yes, that's it: Irene's got herself engaged!
ANGELICA BULLOCK: Oh, I don't know. Van something-or-other. I think
he's the boy with his arm around that girl in pink. He's got lots of
ALEXANDER BULLOCK: Well, he'll need it.

Utterly exasperated by Irene's behavior, Godfrey temporarily loses his cool, carrying her into the shower fully dressed, before turning on the cold water, an act Irene immediately recognizes, because of his atypical behavior, means he loves her!

Godfrey, we ultimately discover, as in many an 18th-century comedy , represents true wealth; a blueblood from Boston, he a man of even higher societal position than the Bullock family; having been jilted by his lover—we are never sure why or how—he began to feel sorry for himself, spinning out of his social realm, too proud, apparently to return to his snobbish family, and falling in with the homeless men on the edge of the river. Although the film has little real political commentary, Godfrey's observation sums up the realities of day: "The only difference between a derelict and a man is a job."

Meanwhile, Cornelia also unpropitiously enters Godfrey's room in order to plant her pearl necklace in his bed before she calls the police to announce it is missing. Discovering the necklace, Godfrey hides it away, and with sound business investments—the kind of good business practices in which Mr. Bullock evidently is unable to engage—makes enough money to invest in a restaurant near the river on the very location where he once lived as a vagrant. Hiring the "forgotten men" of his past, he has transformed the cafe into a hotspot for society regulars, giving him enough cash to buy back Cornelia's pearls, save Mr. Bullock's company, and award them their damaged self-respect.

Yet Godfrey is also somewhat blind to the truth, as Irene visits him in his office/home behind the restaurant, bringing along a picnic dinner, and carefully inspecting her new quarters. Everyone but Godfrey has known of their love, Tommy notifies him. "Stand still, Godfrey. It'll all be over in a minute," orders Irene, as the mayor pronounces them man and wife.

Irene, it is clear, is a necessary force if Godfrey is to escape propriety into the frenzy of everyday living.

Los Angeles, April 25, 2011
Copyright (c) 2011 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli.

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