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1 review, 6 user ratings

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My Man Godfrey
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by MP Bartley

"Mmm, screwball. Tasty."
4 stars

It's comforting to see that while rich people may have far more money than the rest of us poor peasants, they're just as much a target for lampoonery as the rest of us. Yet, it's a difficult balance to lampoon them without descending into exaggerated stereotypes and it's a balance that My Man Godfrey pulls off perfectly.

Irene (Carole Lombard) and Cornelia (Gail Patrick) are two sisters from the wealthy Bullock family, ruled over by the highstrung Angelica (Alice Brady) and harassed Alexander (Eugene Pallette). Every year, the two sisters have a game in their high society lifestyle whereby they have to provide something for an auction to their other rich friends. This year, in an attempt to out-do each other, Irene and Cornelia both head to the slums of the city where Irene picks up a tramp, Godfrey (William Powell), who shows no deference for either the sisters or their privileged circles. This only impresses Irene further who hires him as their new family butler. Upon arrival at the family house he finds that there is a very good reason that none of the previous butlers have lasted very long as he has to juggle the various demands of the family, Irene's growing crush on him and a deep secret that he has to keep from everyone.

Like most genres, the key to a great comedy is if it still works in the contemporary age, and My Man Godfrey not only still works today it's clear that with it's setting in the rich and privileged it's an obvious influence on sitcoms such as Frasier and Arrested Development. However, if it never tips into crude pratfalls it can also be argued that it never fully develops the satiric potential of the upper classes patronising the lower classes, a particularly potent concept in the time of the great depression - a potential development further stalled by the late reveal of Godfrey's secret.

But if that is a slight disappointment, it's compensated by the fact that the rest of the film is an utter joy with not a single line wasted and a great comic performance in every role. As hard as it is for a critic to review a comedy without spoiling the jokes, it must be twice as hard to direct a comedy, considering that so many aspects - tone, pace, delivery - have to be tuned just right to get the maximum comic relief from every scene.

Full praise to director Gregory La Cava then, who directs it at a cracking pace, knows how to frame a film that relies heavily on wit and farce rather than extensive slapstick, and ensures that every joke hits its mark. He's helped by an exquisite cast, that fill every role with an eye catching persona. Patrick is superb as the snobby Cornelia, the sister that wants Godfrey out of the house at any cost and there's a great snarky performance from Jean Dixon as the long suffering maid of the house. Equally long suffering is Pallette's exasperated father, who steals every scene he's in with his sardonic muttering's on his daughter's escapades.

Brady is a neurotic, slightly hysterical delight as the girls' mother who makes every situation worse and Mischa Auer is an oddball joy as Carlo, a piano playing European dismissed as Angelica's latest protege. He contributes little to the plot, but is a great little addition to the flavoursome cast nevertheless.

Powell and Lombard were three years divorced when they starred together here, yet amazingly it must have been the friendliest split in history as it never spills over into the film (indeed, legend has it that Powell insisted Lombard was cast as Irene). The real life attraction they must have once had is clear here, yet it's playfully spiky too as Godfrey does his best to hold the enamoured Irene at arms length. Lombard infuses Irene with such heartfelt joy for life and wide eyed innocence that it's impossible not to feel for her predicament completely and is further proof that her early death in a 1940s plane crash was one of the most tragic losses Hollywood ever suffered.

Powell meanwhile saunters through the film with the easy style and grace of Cary Grant, the charm of Clark Gable and the wit all of his own. Godfrey gets the majority of the best lines (his first scene in the slum and another trying to cover up a slip he's made at a party particularly stand out), and Powell just bats them out magnificently with an ironic, world weary twist to them. It's a joy to see such a brilliantly cast comedy, yet they're good enough actors to restrain themselves and not try to mug and steal focus away from each other. There's a wonderful sense of give and take between the actors, duly recognised when four of the cast (Powell, Lombard, Brady and Auer) all picked up Oscar nominations, a rarity for a comedy. Sadly, none of them were converted to wins and frankly the likes of Pallette, Dixon and Patrick could count themselves unlucky not to be nominated too.

When the majority of comedies today have to rely on poop, vomit and urine jokes, it's good to remind ourselves that not every comedy in history has had to do the same. Just watch My Man Godfrey for evidence of a comedy that relies on wit, charm and intelligence.

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originally posted: 07/03/07 19:06:31
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User Comments

6/23/19 Anne at times it dragged; most of the actors tried too hard 2 stars
9/24/16 Suzanne Powell is a droll delight 4 stars
7/20/09 the dork knight the chick in this is even scarier than Kate Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby 5 stars
3/08/08 Pamela White rags to riches great classic 5 stars
9/07/04 tatum Fun screwball comedy 4 stars
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