Apologies for my lapse in postings over the past few days. I ran the Long Beach Marathon on Sunday and I have been recovering since then. Needless to say the pain in my legs has trumped any desire to write and post. I am now back on track, so on with the best of 1936…
My Man Godfrey
(U.S., Gregory LaCava)
Many (if not most) would probably consider this the wrong comedy to choose as the best picture of 1936. I’ve already explained why Modern Times, most people’s choice for the best picture of the year, is number four on my list. Like Chaplin’s classic, My Man Godfrey uses comedy to critique the capitalistic chaos and economic determinism that ruled (and continues to rule) people’s lives in the years of the Great Depression. Without Chaplin’s overt sentimentality, LaCava’s My Man Godfrey makes its points with finely tuned satire and witty comedy.
We get the absurdity of our unofficial but no less perfidious class system, in which dingbats like Irene and Angelica Bullock prosper while hardworking people like Godfrey and his fellow “forgotten men” languish in the junkyards. It’s a strange system where Godfrey faces stiff penalties for allegedly stealing a necklace, but Cornelia gets off with a withering look for framing Godfrey (or trying to anyway). Our economic inequalities are legally codified: a spoiled girl’s necklace is more valuable than a working man’s life.
When Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) finds Godfrey Smith (William Powell) at a city dump during a wickedly insensitive scavenger hunt that calls for its participants to trot in a “forgotten man,” she takes an immediate interest in him. She is moved and thrilled by the way he tells off the empty-headed society snobs for using down-on-their-luck men in their silly game. Irene, delighted at his brazen contempt for her peers, offers the man a job as her family’s butler. Godfrey embarks on the challenge of keeping together the insane Bullock family while putting his own life back together. He prides himself on doing a good job even when it is not appreciated or deserved. He goes out of his way to make sure breakfast is served on time, clothes are pressed, and the family doesn’t crumble under the weight of their own selfishness and arrogance while attempting to navigate Irene’s romantic aspirations. All the while, Godfrey uses his newfound resources to put his old friends from the junkyard back to work without the knowledge of the Bullocks.
The wonderful part of this picture is that LaCava and screenwriters Eric Hatch and Morrie Ryskind subtly make it clear that we can’t improve the economic health of the country without improving it for everyone. We can’t ignore some for the benefit of others, a lesson timid politicians in Washington and myopic Freidmanite economists would be wise to consider today when the gap between rich and poor is startlingly wide, maybe even wider than in the 1920s. This might sound heavy for a comedy, but LaCava made a movie for us to laugh. The Bullocks aren’t despicable people; they are silly and empty-headed. One could argue that they are victims of economic disparity as well, albeit victims who eat incredibly well. They have, however, been duped into believing their money proffers value on them as people, making any other accomplishments besides a good time superfluous.
I’m afraid I am making this movie sound more serious than it is. Trust me, if you don’t want to think about these issue while watching this movie, you don’t have to. It’s a comedy, pure and simple, and it is the most satisfying and entertaining movie of 1936.