My Man Godfrey (1936). 94 minutes. Directed by Gregory La Cava. Starring William Powell (as Godfrey), Carole Lombard (as Irene Bullock), Alice Brady (as Angelica Bullock), Gail Patrick (as Cornelia Bullock), Eugene Pallette (as Alexander Bullock), Jean Dixon (as Molly), Alan Mowbray (as Tommy Gray), Mischa Auer (as Carlo), and Pat Flaherty (as Mike Flaherty).
My Man Godfrey is a kind of topsy-turvy fairy tale about the Great Depression: a society girl finds a hobo whom she adopts and transforms into a butler, but in the end he reveals that he is really a member of the upper classes. Much like the princes of fairy tales, the butler Godfrey is on a personal quest laden with trials, except that his quest involves moving through the American social hierarchy, becoming first a member of one class, then another, and then another. Although the movie is a screwball comedy set in ritzy 1930s Manhattan and features large sets, beautiful clothes, and quirky characters, it also has an almost mythological dimension that encompasses some of the fantasy rhetoric of the Depression era as well as more antique traditions. The result is a bubbly comedy that nevertheless uses deep cultural archetypes to make broad points about class and how we value the social standing of ourselves and others.
The movie opens on a city dump full of hobos in New York. A car pulls up and Cornelia Bullock, a beautiful woman wearing immaculate evening wear, emerges. She approaches one of the men and explains that she is participating in a scavenger hunt and will win a prize if she is the first person to produce a Forgotten Man. The hobo, whose name is Godfrey, is offended and reacts angrily, much to the delight of the other woman who has emerged from the car, Irene Bullock. Irene is ashamed of her sister’s request and delighted that Godfrey has nearly pushed Cornelia into an ash pile. Godfrey is so moved by Irene’s good nature that he offers to participate in the scavenger hunt on Irene’s behalf. Irene wins the competition and asks Godfrey to come home with her and work as her family’s butler; she has begun to fall in love with him, and he consents.
Godfrey’s time on the job is complicated by the family’s eccentricities. He soon learns that no butler has lasted long in the Bullock household. Irene is prone to emotional displays, Cornelia schemes to have him fired, Mrs. Bullock is busy training her ridiculous protégé Carlo, and Mr. Bullock is always exasperated by their behavior. To complicate matters, Cornelia discovers that Godfrey is really a member of the prestigious Park family of Boston. Having been rejected by a society woman, Godfrey has abandoned his social circle and left his illustrious life behind, vowing never to love again. But by now Irene is in love with him, and Godfrey (sensing he might have feelings for her as well) announces he must leave; before he departs, he helps Mr. Bullock out financially and saves the family’s fortune. He then heads for the former trash heap, which he and some investor friends have converted into a high-end nightclub called The Dump. Irene follows him there with an officiant in tow, who in the last moments of the film begins to marry them.
My Man Godfrey draws from Depression-era lore to suggest that Godfrey’s trajectory is part of a common contemporary narrative. The movie often makes reference to the concept of Forgotten Men—World War One veterans who returned home from the front and found themselves unemployable in spite of their heroism abroad. The romantic mythology of the Forgotten Man was infused with the pervasive image of men who had sacrificed a great deal, reduced to wearing scraggly clothes and huddling around trash can fires in shanty towns. The term appealed to people’s sense of injustice and was widely applied to men who were down on their luck in the 1930s, including businessmen whose fortunes disappeared with the stock market crash of 1929. The term “Forgotten Man” is not, however, used by the scavenger hunt participants in My Man Godfrey out of a sense of pity or injustice but rather in a spirit of irony and irreverence as they pursue the ultimate radical chic prize: a live hobo to display at a fancy party. In the eyes of the party goers, who understand the idea of the Forgotten Man only from a distance, this label contributes to Godfrey’s mystique, which he uses to his advantage; when he meets the Bullocks and becomes their butler, he accepts the evocative designation “Forgotten Man” and in this way cultivates his own personal mythology by working with the terminology of his time.
Whereas the Forgotten Man category contributes its own brand of 1930s cultural romance to Godfrey’s story, the movie also borrows a more antique, fairy-tale subtext for its story of self-fashioning, in which the humble hobo is revealed to be a dashing prince of sorts. Of course, Godfrey, while elite, is recovering from a bad relationship and not prepared to whisk anyone away, and the woman who will be his princess is already royalty. But much as in a fairy tale, Godfrey encounters a series of trials: during his first morning in the household, he must conquer each member of the family as they awaken, crotchety and ill-humored, after a night of revelry. There is the hallucinating mother, the violent Cornelia, the temptress Irene who pounces on Godfrey, the father who wants to challenge him to a boxing match, thinking he has spent the night upstairs in one of his daughter’s bedrooms. But there are other trials: being placed on the table at the scavenger hunt while he is interviewed inconsiderately by the hunt’s judge, and the conspiracy initiated by Cornelia to out him as an impostor and to frame him as a thief.
In addition to trials, Godfrey undergoes a good deal of folkloric transformation. Godfrey as a Forgotten Man is living on the fringes of society in the city dump, as the Bullocks’ butler he is living a comfortable working-class life among the posh, and as a member of the Boston Parks family, he is a member of the very class he serves in the Bullock household, adding a deep irony to the primary narrative. His story is characterized by fluidity and change. We might be tempted to say that in a way he is unable to escape his upper-class status, and it is true that in the end he emerges as a successful businessman because of his old social ties. But our belief that Godfrey returns to his roots in the conclusion is complicated by the fact that his connections have enabled him to live the life of a businessman in a small apartment attached to the nightclub he has created—in other words, we might say that he emerges as a member of the middle class rather than a restored member of the upper class. In this way, Godfrey manages to triumph over the class system by demonstrating that he can move among its hierarchies chameleon-like, blending in as part of whatever station he adopts.
Whereas Godfrey is class fluid, the Bullocks are class rigid: in the end, he saves them from an unpleasant class transition by intervening financially and saving their stocks, sparing them an experience of poverty that they, unlike him, would probably be unable to endure. Godfrey’s chosen path is not for everyone, in other words, and his project of class experimentation cannot likely be universalized. But the Bullocks are made out to be more than inflexible—they also appear foolish and irresponsible. This is particularly evident in the screwball nature of the Bullock household. The daughter Irene has dramatic fits and seems emotionally unstable, the mother Angelica is a flibbertigibbet with an inappropriate relationship involving the young musician Carlo, and father Alexander is contentious, constantly flabbergasted, and unable to keep order in his own home. There is a scene where Carlo runs around and climbs the furniture as he pretends to be an ape, and there are many scenes where the Bullock family trades barbs while indulging in cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. Although they are highly amusing, they also seem indulgent, excessive, and spoiled. Their scenes feel like gentle criticisms of the wealthy, of their financially and emotionally indulgent lifestyles.
Class fluidity is an implied subtext of the movie, but class is an explicit topic of conversation for Godfrey, and on that subject he teeters between severity and generosity. He tells the snobbish Bullock daughter Cornelia that she is a typical spoiled uppercrust girl, and in his meeting at the hotel with his old Boston friend Tommy Gray he demonstrates that he has meditated on what it means to be a Park and why he does not care to be one any longer. But although Godfrey has ostensibly rejected his roots, he has also thought about why status and money are still important to others. He uses his shrewdness and resources to spare the Bullock family the shame and discomfort of losing their fortune and good name in the end, even though shedding his own family name has been his central project. Although he is not interested in living an upper-class life himself, his relationship to that life is complex, he can see its value to the Bullocks, and he can see the value of the Bullocks. His charity towards them encourages us to also be charitable to them.
This movie is about social hierarchy, but it is also about a wild family and its charming eccentricities. I must admit that I can take only so much of the family-of-quirky-personalities concept, but My Man Godfrey actually pulls this off better than other screwball family comedies out there, thanks in part to actresses Carole Lombard and Alice Brady, who made me laugh quite a bit. In contrast, I think of movies such as Merrily We Live (1938), which is derivative of My Man Godfrey—although to be fair, Merrily We Live was chiefly based on the film What a Man (1930). I could not sit through more than a half hour of Merrily We Live, whereas I have seen My Man Godfrey many times. Although Merrily We Live’s Kilbourne family irritated me and seemed too precious, the Bullocks are more tolerable—rounder, more sophisticated, and engaged in a story that is deeper and has more wisdom to share. My Man Godfrey holds up well as a funny, stylish fantasy, but above all it is a nuanced take on the societal forces that limit us, our ability to turn those forces on their head, and the need for us to be kind to others as we shed our old selves and shape our new selves.