Classic Woman-centric Movie Review: My Man Godfrey (1936)

So even though it was a short week at work, it has been a very long week for me, so this weekend I decided to pick a screwball comedy that is bound to help alleviate some of the stress. My Man Godfrey was released in 1936 and stars William Powell and Carole Lombard. It was directed by Gregory La Cava.

Godfrey (Powell) has been living with the other vagabonds in the city streets until one night when his life inexplicably changes. Two young socialites, Cornelia and Irene Bullock, are on a scavenger hunt and are in search of a forgotten man. Cornelia approaches Godfrey first, and while refusing Cornelia’s offer, he inadvertently pushes her onto a pile of ashes. Irene (Lombard) thinks the whole situation is quite amusing, and she is able to persuade Godfrey to return to the Waldorf-Astoria hotel with her so she can collect her prize. The women’s parents, Alexander Bullock, a businessman, and Angelica Bullock, are waiting for their daughters to return. Godfrey is indeed pronounced a forgotten man, and after he voices his disdain for the fabulously wealthy, Irene insists that he come to work as a butler in the Bullock household. She declares that he must be her protégé, like young Carlo is to her mother, but Godfrey will have none of it.

Cornelia suspects that Irene has feelings for Godfrey and does what she can to not only mock her sister, but make his life miserable, even though he is a rather competent butler. But there is more to Godfrey than meets the eye, as one of the family’s friends, Tommy Grey, recognizes him as Godfrey Parke of Boston, an old friend from Harvard. Tommy and Godfrey concoct an outrageous story that Godfrey was once Tommy’s valet and that he is a married man with five children. This crushes Irene, who then announces an engagement to one of the young men attending the party, even though he can’t remember proposing to her. Later, Godfrey confides to Tommy that after the horrible end of a love affair, he was suicidal until he saw that the men living on the street were much worse off than he was and were still scraping by. While living among them, Godfrey slowly recovered from his heartache and also found out what life was like for those who had been adversely affected by the Great Depression.

Poster for My Man Godfrey
Poster from film. Image via Wikipedia.

Cornelia, still determined to make Godfrey’s life miserable, tries to accuse him of stealing her pearls, but her scheme is unveiled when she tells the police to check under the mattress. After this incident, the Bullock girls head off to Europe for awhile, but Irene still hasn’t forgotten Godfrey. She contrives to fake a fainting spell and fall into his arms so that they can be alone together, and when he sees through her ruse, he takes her into the bathroom and puts her in the shower, turning on the cold water. Irene takes this as a sign that he loves her.

Now Godfrey is ready to leave his position, but before he can tell the family, Alexander announces that he has lost all of his money, which he borrowed from shareholders, in the stock market. Godfrey, however, comes through: He was aware of Mr. Bullock’s problem, pawned Cornelia’s pearl necklace, and bought the shares that Alexander had sold. He saves the family from financial ruin and has enough left over to build a club on the site of the dump where he used to live and employ the homeless men who remained there. Irene, completely in love with Godfrey now, shows up at the club with a justice of the peace so they can have a quickie wedding. This time, Godfrey, who was clearly in love with Irene all the while, doesn’t object and lets her have what she wants.

While the film is an absolute delight to watch, it carries the very serious message that the rich need to be mindful of their actions and the effects on those of a lower socioeconomic status. Godfrey, who had once been a wealthy man, lived among men who had lost everything during the Great Depression, so he was very aware of how people were affected by the choices of people who wanted more money simply because they were greedy. He has a rather bitter view of his life and society, until Irene is kind enough to help him and have her family hire him as a butler. Godfrey’s attitude begins to change after this; he realizes that he must also help people who need it. He keeps the Bullocks from losing everything and also makes things better for the men who had helped him out of his own depression. Instead of being greedy and keeping things for himself, he gives back to those who helped him. He was able to start over again once because of Irene, and now he can start again with Irene.

One reply on “Classic Woman-centric Movie Review: My Man Godfrey (1936)”

i saw this film this week too. it is one of my favorites, but i didn’t remember irene being such a complete ditz. i have always been intrigued by cornelia. she, after finding her soul, would be so much more the mate for godfrey than irene. at least she has some layers. i love william powell’s development as someone who suffers the slings and arrows and comes out without bitterness but instead with grace and a gratefulness we see so rarely on stage and on film.

Leave a Reply