Lombard and Powell bounce off each other beautifully in the definitive screwball comedy My Man Godfrey
MY MAN GODFREY (1936)
Starring Carole Lombard and William Powell
Directed by Gregory La Cava
Released by Universal Pictures
Even though the film takes place during the depression, there nothing sombre or modest about My Man Godfrey. With its lavish sets, fabulous costumes and impossibly good looking actors, the Bullock family lives a fantasy world that every regular American wished they could. Number 44 on AFI’s list of the 100 greatest American comedies of all time, My Man Godfrey still manages to produces great laughs from a viewer seventy-odd years later.
The film opens with Godfrey Smith (William Powell), an opinionated homeless man living in a shanty town by the Hudson River. It’s amusing that being derelict in the 30s by Hollywood standards meant you had a beard.
This combined with swapping pleasantries with his fellow “bums” in an upper-crust accent and you don’t exactly buy the image of Powell as homeless. He rather fits in much better with the high society Bullock family, who after a chance encounter with the scatterbrained Irene (Carole Lombard) hires Godfrey as the family butler.
Godfrey is definitely the straight man of the story, impressing everyone that he’s able to put up with the insane antics that go on in the Bullock household. The scene where Godfrey manages to successfully serve Mrs. Bullock breakfast while she’s hung over and ranting about pixies is especially amusing.
Irene meanwhile is the heart of this film. While she’s just as crazy as the rest of her family, her naÃ¯veté, her sweetness and her wildly inappropriate methods to get Godfrey to fall in love with her are funny and endearing.
Irene’s sister Cornelia (Gail Patrick) feels like the grandmother of Blair Waldorf, a delicious antagonist who’s somehow still relatable. After being insulted by Godfrey in the opening scene of the film, Cornelia is determined to make his job as difficult as possible. Patrick’s scenes with Powell are extremely sexually charged. Cornelia seems to hate Godfrey just as much as she wants to jump his bones.
Cruel but perceptive, it is Cornelia who figures out that Godfrey Smith is actually Godfrey Parks, a member of the high society Boston family who gave up his wealth after getting his heart broken. Although Cornelia and Godfrey may be intellectual equals, you have to enjoy their scenes together on their own because you know from the very beginning which Bullock sister Godfrey is going to end up with.
The scenes between Lombard and Powell are quite tame compared to Powell and Patrick, but what the pair lacks in on screen sexual chemistry (Lombard and Powell were married for a time in real life) they make up for in comedic timing.
From Godfrey trying to explain to Irene what inappropriate means to her basically snowballing him into marriage at the end of the film, in the crazy world of My Man Godfrey these characters being together somehow ends up seeming completely normal.