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'My Man Godfrey': High-Class Struggle
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
04:00PM / Thursday, October 29, 2020
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I wish that I were reviewing one of the several movies about this pox upon our house that are certain to be made when the horror is deep into our rearview mirror. But until that glorious return to normality has us resuming all the simple joys of life we take for granted, like going to the movies, I'll be retro-reviewing and thereby sharing with you the films that I've come to treasure over the years, most of which can probably be retrieved from one of the movie streaming services. It is my fondest hope that I've barely put a dent into this trove when they let the likes of me back into the Bijou.
Analyzing "My Man Godfrey" (1936), about a socialite who adopts a seemingly down-on-his-luck denizen of the city dump after rounding him up courtesy of a charity soiree's scavenger hunt, I wondered what came first: my empathy, or the film's prodding to be so?
Could another kid my age, living across the street, let us say, whose parents also let him stay up late and watch old movies, see director Gregory La Cava's tutorial on economic inequity dressed in screwball comedy's clothing and nonetheless grow up to support a Trump? How does that happen?
I'm guessing that little boy, who like me will inevitably be tired and thus inattentively bored in Mrs. Kaplan's 4th-grade class the next day, each night received the following instruction from his parents before they retired to bed: "We're going to sleep, Smitty. Stay up and watch that drivel if you must, but just don't fall for that sympathy for the disadvantaged stuff. It's a bunch of hooey, and anyone who buys into it is a loser and a chump. Help people and they'll start making money and move into our neighborhood and think they're as good as we are. Good night. We love you."
Coddled in wealth, Carole Lombard's Irene Bullock, who convinces William Powell's Godfrey Smith to forsake the ash pile and become her zany family's butler, is too isolated from the real world to harbor any prejudices toward the Great Unwashed, if she knew they existed. She's also a little silly, doubtlessly due in no small part to freedom from almost all life-sustaining concerns.
That is, except for the constant bullying at the hands of her beautiful sister, Cornelia (Gail Patrick), who has allowed the boredom of the idle rich to render her mean spirited.
Expectedly, Irene becomes increasingly enamored of her somewhat mysterious find. He is, after all, quite polished considering from whence he sprang. Rationalizing that her ditsy mom has taken in a ne'er-do-well artist as her protégé, she knights Godfrey her pet project. In turn, he proves a great butler who soon doubles as surreptitious social worker to the nuttily dysfunctional Bullocks, all the while doing his best to squelch the sweet princess' advances. The jaded Cornelia hardly likes the arrangement.
Morrie Ryskind's smartly hilarious, Oscar-nominated script adapted from Erich Hatch's novel, subtly informs the Bullock parlor with a stream of witty repartee that silently screams the causes of class struggle beneath its wackiness. Aside from Godfrey, only Mr. Bullock, a captain of industry who has been experiencing financial setbacks of late, possesses some semblance of reality.
What's actually funny is that conversations like the following might very well be taking place inside the mansions you survey on a Sunday drive. Y'know, those exurban castles that make you dizzyingly ponder, who lives there?
Andrew Bullock: I've just been going over last month's bills, and I find that you people have confused me with the Treasury Department.
Cornelia: Oh, don't start that again, Dad.
Andrew Bullock: I don't mind giving the government 60 percent of what I make. But I can't do it when my family spends 50 percent!
Irene: Well, why should the government get more money than your own family?
It is the systemic disassociation from the issues of humanity, instilled back in the Once Upon a Time days, that has, through a dirty pool application of Darwinian theory, excised compassion.
Of course, it being The Depression, it's all rather sanitized here. The accepted practice was to give audiences a reprieve from the economic hardship while slyly acknowledging the awful truth via a lavishly wishful excess. Powell is elegantly dashing, and Lombard wears her privileged chicness like a second skin. 
Yet, while they don't show the inside of the hovels where Godfrey's old pals live, anyone with half a heart and about as much gray matter can guess the horrors that lie within: the coldness, the despair and the wretched lack of that which is necessary to sustaining body and soul.
Hence, we are vicariously heartened when Godfrey, whose true background cannot be divulged here, hatches a plan of entrepreneurial niftiness that, in its microcosmic insight, echoes the goodhearted spirit of the New Deal. But it won't be that easy as the callously bratty Cornelia, resolved to doing whatever it takes to quash the romantic ambitions of little sis, plays the fly in the ointment. While she couldn't care less about whatever fiscal ingenuity Godfrey is up to, or where the destitute will sleep on any given night, it's clear that defaming the butler will derail Irene's dreams. Alas, such are the single-minded wiles of the blasé aloof.
Never screaming it aloud, "My Man Godfrey" stealthily gets to the nub of the perennial enigma, its acerbically clever diatribe offering a comically administered exhortation that our so-called gregarious species is a work hopefully still in progress.
"My Man Godfrey" is a Universal Pictures release directed by Gregory La Cava and stars Carole Lombard, William Powell and Gail Patrick. Running time: 94 minutes
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