Unlike a lot of the genres that were prominent during Hollywood’s golden era, I’m not sure Screwball Comedy is one that can be adapted to our modern times. Or at least, I’m not sure there’s been a film to come along that has convinced me otherwise. The Western, film noir, musicals, horror movies, and period epics have all resurfaced in one form or another as the decades of moviemaking have worn on. Though it’s hard to think of any recent films that effectively channel the irreverent wit and sophistication of the Screwball Comedy.
Even a movie like You’ve Got Mail, which was literally a remake of a screwball comedy, just feels like a cheesy Nora Ephron movie. Also, the Coen Brothers I’m sure have been influenced by films from this genre, but I have a hard time referring to Raising Arizona as a screwball comedy, as much as it tries. Now, I’m sure there’s some movie I’m forgetting, but honestly the only the thing that’s coming to mind that remotely conjures the tone of the romantic comedies of the ’30s and ’40s is Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, but I suppose we’ll leave that for another Criterion Month entry.
The story of Godfrey (played by William Powell), begins at a New York City dump overlooking the 59th Street Bridge, where a bunch of “forgotten men” are living in poverty. A group of the upper-crust of society happen upon this dump in the midst of a scavenger hunt, while a spoiled rich girl named Cornelia (Gail Patrick) says she needs to collect one of these forgotten men for the scavenger hunt. Godfrey gets mad at Cornelia, which leaves her scurrying away, as her younger sister Irene (Carole Lombard) takes an innate shine to Godfrey and offers him a job as the butler of her family, the Bullocks.
Godfrey begrudgingly takes the job, and soon discovers that this family which at first glance seems so respectable, is actually pretty batty. Godfrey himself also appears to be defined by some contradictions when a visitor recognizes him as someone named Parke, who came from a Boston family of some wealth. We then learn that Godfrey did come from money, though after a bad break-up he lost the will to live before discovering and being inspired by the resilient “forgotten men” living at the dump. Though through none of these complications does the lovestruck Irene ever give up on her desire to end up with Godfrey.
It’s not surprising that this was the first film to ever be nominated for all four acting categories at the Academy Awards, because it’s just a brilliantly acted film. William Powell has a perfect deadpan delivery, which gives him an air of both sophistication and of a cynical everyman. Meanwhile, the way Gail Patrick and Carol Lombard play off of each other as warring sisters is entertaining without becoming cloying. Then there’s the family’s put-upon businessman father played by Eugene Pallette and his obliviously diamond-coated wife played by Alice Brady. They’re all very specifically written characters brought to life wonderfully by these actors, and I’m not even mentioning the quirky secondary characters that steal a scene or two.
It brings up the idea that perhaps this era of filmmaking and the screwball genre in general were more of a writer’s medium. After all, with the advent of sound, audio equipment hindered directors’ ability to be truly virtuosic in their camera placement, and therefore put more burden on the writer churning out a first-class script, which Morrie Ryskind and Eric Hatch deliver here. It would also explain why Gregory La Cava never made a movie nearly as notable as this one, as well as why the screwball comedy genre was responsible for Hollywood’s first great writer-director, Preston Sturges.
Speaking of, My Man Godfrey reminds me of a number of other studio films from this era, including Sullivan’s Travels, and… well, most of Frank Capra’s filmography. These stories about poverty and class, and the disparity that exists between the have’s and the have not’s in America. They’re the kind of stories that feel very of their time, considering they came out during or close to the Great Depression, but still feel very timely today. They also showed early on that Hollywood was capable of holding a mirror to the things happening in the world, but with a light touch that audiences could go for. You know, just like Green Book.
You could say there’s something a little overly simplistic about Godfrey spouting this idea that the poorest men in the world are just as rich in character as the ultrawealthy. But the movie never beats you over the head with it. We know that Godfrey’s ideas about class are no doubt influenced by him never having to actually struggle for anything in his life. Though the fact that this idea is merely lingering in the background of all the wit and hijinks, it indeed makes the film far richer than all of its ragtag elements.