My Man Godfrey is one of the key screwball comedies of the ’30s—probably the most important one from the early to mid-’30s after It Happened One Night, which established the genre template. It was directed by Gregory La Cava. La Cava who isn’t as much of a household name as the genre’s best-known directors, like Frank Capra or, slightly later on, Howard Hawks or Preston Sturges, but his films live on. This is especially so for My Man Godfrey, which was remade in the ’50s and has been re-released on DVD several times (but mostly on sub-par public domain discs.)
The general set-up is that Godfrey (William Powell) is a hobo who gets hired by a rich socialite, Irene (Carole Lombard), as a butler, after her sister proposes to give him $5 to be her “forgotten man” for a scavenger hunt. Naturally, Irene falls head over heels with Godfrey, and the usual hijinks happen, all under a cloud of acute Depression-era social satire. The gap between the rich and poor was so vast during the Depression that it was a natural idea to put a hobo in this world of wealthy social climbers as a way to mock them mercilessly. Le Cava was the most left-wing of the early screwball comedy directors, and many of his films deal with the gap between rich and poor. Among his contemporaries, Leo McCarey was more to the right and Frank Capra was somewhere in the middle. La Cava would, however, make the film Gabriel over the White House about a benevolent politician who makes the US a fascist state, in which it’s considered a good thing!
The dialogue is great, and it was highly improvised, because La Cava considered the script something to be ignored. He was also a cartoonist and animator, so that background plays into the timing and composition of shots. The chemistry between Powell and Lombard is delicious: they were married for short period before the film, and it was Powell who suggested Lombard for the role. It sounds like it was a fun shoot. La Cava and Powell couldn’t agree on how to portray Godfrey at first. Instead, they got insanely drunk on scotch, resulting in Powell failing to show up and sending the following telegram to a hungover La Cava “WE MAY HAVE FOUND GODFREY LAST NIGHT BUT WE LOST POWELL. SEE YOU TOMORROW.”
My Man Godfrey may not be my favourite screwball comedy, but it’s a key film in the genre, featuring some incredibly biting satire, great chemistry between the two leads, and super performances from the rest of the ensemble. The disc includes lots of new video appreciations of the film and La Cava, outtakes, a radio adaptation, newsreels showing the Depression and finally the trailer.