My Man Godfrey and The Forgotten Man
This month, the Criterion Collection released its Blu-Ray edition of Gregory LaCava’s 1936 masterpiece My Man Godfrey, the screwball comedy about a daffy heiress and the homeless man with whom she becomes besotted when she brings him to her family’s estate to work as their butler. Starring William Powell in his sole Oscar-nominated performance as Godfrey and Carole Lombard as the delightfully zany Irene Bullock, My Man Godfrey is in many ways the peak of the screwball comedy cycle of the 1930s, deftly combining farce with ruthless satire.
Powell and Lombard were real-life ex-spouses when My Man Godfrey was filmed and their chemistry is only exceeded by the former’s team-ups with Myrna Loy, and is in fact the only time Powell truly shined with another female co-star. Interestingly, Powell and Lombard had been paired twice during their actual marriage while both were under contract at Paramount Pictures, in Man of the World and Ladies’ Man in 1931. Both films were rather static and dreadful, just like their stars at the time although Powell was further along than Lombard in his development at the time. It’s only through the assembly-line mechanics of the studio system that both were able to overcome their weak early sound performances and establish comedic screen personas that were never remotely hinted at in their times at Paramount. It’s a funny little irony of film history that it took Powell and Lombard getting divorced to create some real screen chemistry between them.
The film is in many ways the descendent of Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night in 1934 which, along with Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century that same year that firmly established Carole Lombard as a great comic performer, many film historians credit with creating the screwball comedy genre. Capra’s film not only paired a straight man who didn’t want love (Clark Gable) with a “daffy dame” who wanted love (Claudette Colbert), but it established the importance of establishing class differences between the two protagonists to explore the awfulness of greed.
Hollywood was ready to explore the differences between the rich and the poor in 1934 in the middle of the Great Depression. The inherent unfairness of the financial system that created the Depression was not ignored by popular culture. As much as the original moguls fully embraced capitalism and all that came with it, the one thing they had in common was they were Jewish immigrants who started out with nothing and built themselves up as the titans of what became at the time the fourth largest industry. They were well aware from personal experience what the evils of poverty were, and what it meant to be poor, because they had actually lived it. Also, too, because 60% of the entire nation’s population went to the movies at least once a week, the movies had to reflect the lives that giant chunk of the population was actually living. Poor people went to the movies and so their lives would be seen on screen. Some studios, like MGM and Paramount, emphasized this much less, preferring to delve into the escapism of fantasy and wealth, but Warner Brothers, Columbia Pictures and Universal Pictures had no such compunction. They often set their films in the tenements and showed the lives of the poor and the working class. Warner Brothers, the largest of those three, gained a reputation for hard-boiled stories with stars like James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson belying the belief that movie stars had to be these sculpted, beautiful creatures.
The premise of My Man Godfrey is simple enough. The upper crust of New York society engages in a scavenger hunt and one of the prizes they must find is a "Forgotten Man," the term used for the millions of unemployed men who lost their jobs and their homes during the Depression. When the spoiled, bratty Cornelia Bullock attempts to procure homeless Godfrey for the hunt in the middle of a riverside community in the City Dump, he pushes her into an ash pile for the insult. Young Irene, delighted with Godfrey's move against her sister, immediately takes to Godfrey and eventually invites her home to become the family's butler, a position fraught with peril in the household full of eccentric wealthy weirdos. The film is rife with spectacular character actors such as Eugene Pallette, Alice Brady and MIscha Auer, but it is Powell and Lombard as Godfrey and Irene who really shine. Irene rather objectifies Godfrey as her project in becoming a better person, while he is strangely attracted to her. Powell here turns in his best non-NIck-Charles performance as the man who is doing absolutely everything in his power to avoid falling in love and fails.
The message in the film, ultimately, is that GREED IS BAD. Cornelia eventually gets her comeuppance when she clumsily attempts to frame Godfrey for the theft of a pearl necklace, and the family learns some harsh lessons about what they assumed about Godfrey's character because he was poor.
The one element that could undermine the message of the picture is that Godfrey, in fact, is not poor at all but an unwilling scion of a wealthy Boston family who has rejected all his worldly possessions following a failed romance. The plot twist, however, only emphasizes the moral of the tale, as Godfrey uses his wealth to open a nightclub on the site of the City Dump, calls it (of course) The Dump, and employs all the Forgotten Men as his staff.
My Man Godfrey is not only a brilliant romantic comedy and a brilliant farce but one of the finest social satires ever produced in Hollywood. It is almost impossible to conceive of such a film being made today. Producers today come from almost unimaginable positions of privilege from the day they were born and have been raised to embrace greed for generations now. Creators too come from positions of great privilege. Think, for example, of how the film and television industries reacted to the Great Financial Crisis of ten years ago. While films like The Big Short showed the origins of that crisis, they never showed how the crisis affected normal people. The one TV series that comes to mind is the ABC sitcom Modern Family, which debuted in 2009 and featured a realtor who managed to support his stay-at-home wife and three children even as the real estate market was crashing. Not once did the show mention any struggle as a result of the crisis.
The Forgotten Man today is barely worth a mention, and today, alas, is entirely forgotten.