Comedy

‘Godfrey’ Screenplay Skewers the One Percent

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Poor Gail Patrick (left) thinks she can outwit William Powell (right). Image: Cineplex

Sometimes Hollywood is a bit much, really.

Filmmakers know that we, the masses, enjoy send-ups of rich people. We love it when we can feel intellectually superior to the dim-witted characters on the screen.

The joke is on us, of course. Many of these Hollywood films are made by rich people skewering their own kind, so we can buy tickets to laugh at them – thereby making them even richer.

But once in a while there is a script that makes us forget all of that by offering a deeper message. One such film, for us, is the 1936 screwball comedy, My Man Godfrey.

Godfrey (William Powell) is a “Forgotten” (read: homeless) man who lives with other Forgotten Men in a New York City landfill. One night, limousines arrive and lavishly-dressed rich people, involved in a scavenger hunt, invade the landfill to collect some of these Forgotten Men.

The movie’s not even five minutes old and already the script has smacked us upside the head. It’s significant that homeless people are living in the landfill. (In the landfill. In a first world country!) Even the 1930s term Forgotten Man is cosmetic, intended to mask a societal problem. The phrase is almost quaint and faintly amusing – as though one had left a pair of gloves at the polo club.

One of the rich people (Carole Lombard) quickly realizes the callousness of her mission and apologizes to Powell. He insists he be the Forgotten Man on her Scavenger Hunt List and so, with gratitude, she offers him a job as her family’s butler.

It’s here we get to see a wacky rich family who are alarmingly out of touch with society (i.e. the Depression) and the suffering of others. But they are not without their charm. For example, the father (Eugene Pallette), in summarizing the family’s finances, declares, “[Y]ou people have confused me with the Treasury Department.”

Witty lines, interesting characters, a social message. This is a script that could be nominated for an Oscar.

Which it was.

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The morals of the idle rich. Image: tumblr

The script has assigned Powell’s character the voice of reason, the one who tries to keep everyone grounded. We learn this early in the film, when Powell, rumpled and unshaven from landfill living, accepts the job offer from Lombard, all sleek in her Travis Banton gown.

Powell: “Just one question.”

Lombard: “What.”

Powell: “Where do you live?”

Lombard: “1011 Fifth. It’s funny – I never thought of that.”

Powell: [with a sardonic laugh] “No, you didn’t.”

Throughout the film, Powell tries to reconcile his new life as a butler with his former life as a Forgotten Man. Lombard’s older sister (Gail Patrick) discovers Powell has a secret past which she’s determined to uncover. In the meantime, she never lets Powell forget she’s a Superior Being because she has access to more money.

Powell’s character isn’t bedazzled by riches, and he scorns people who are. “I wanted to see how a bunch of empty-headed nitwits conducted themselves,” he says. “My curiosity is satisfied.”

My Man Godfrey was nominated for six Academy Awards, but went home empty-handed. It was beaten by The Story of Louis Pasteur in the categories of Best Picture and Best Screenplay. However, a person can’t blame the Academy; it would be difficult for any film to run against the guy who developed pasteurization.

Yet, we like to think the still-relevant My Man Godfrey was a close second.

My Man Godfrey: starring William Powell, Carole Lombard, Alice Brady. Directed by Gregory La Cava. Written by Morrie Ryskind, Eric Hatch, Robert Presnell, Zoë Akins. Universal Productions Inc., 1936, B&W, 95 mins.

This post is part of the 31 DAYS OF OSCAR Blogathon: The Crafts, hosted by Paula’s Cinema Club, Outspoken & Freckled and Once Upon a Screen. Click HERE for a list of all participants.

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33 thoughts on “‘Godfrey’ Screenplay Skewers the One Percent

  1. ‘My Man Godfrey’ remains more relevant than the actual Oscar winner that year. It is as close to perfection as we mere humans can ever get. William Powell, even more so. For my money, he was one of the most intelligent, witty, and charming men to ever appear onscreen. Oh, and sexy. Let’s not forget that.

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      1. It’s a good and worthy film! But. as long as our income disparity continues to grow…the more relevant Godfrey will remain. Plus, it is just a fun film.

        William Powell is my idea of a matinee idol.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The 1950s remake of “Godfrey” does not work half so well because it does not have the potent background of the Great Depression. It is that one foot in a brutal reality that makes the earlier film more than a screwball comedy, although it is a great one.

    I’m a fan of “The Story of Louis Pasteur”. It takes a story to which we already know the outcome yet still makes a compelling film. Both movies are excellent in their achievement as, I’m sure, were the other nominees. That is the silly part about the awards – the comparisons.

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  3. One of my favourite screwballs. I think it’s a travesty it didn’t win any awards. Such wonderful characters and flawless script (I love the line from Lombard: “I’d like to sew his buttons on sometime, when they come off”) And props to Powell for playing one of the best on screen drunks.
    (and not to be too superficial, but I adore those Banton gowns!)

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    1. I saw one of those Banton gowns, specifically the one Irene wears when picking up Godfrey from the dump for the scavenger hunt, yesterday at Hollywood Costume at the old Wilshire and Fairfax May Co. building (the future Academy Museum site). It looks silvery on the silver screen, but it’s actually gold — perfect for a larger-than-life goddess such as Lombard. (Oh, and Hollywood Costume will run for about two week more, so plan to visit it right away.)

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Ha ha! Carole is so good in this film. How she does those scenes without bursting into laughter is beyond me. I could never do it.

      And Travis Banton gowns!! Yum! In my opinion, he knew how to dress a woman without objectifying her, if that makes sense?

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      1. He really helped define our perception of the 1930s, he did those elegant bias cut cocktail gowns so well.
        I think Dietrich is the perfect of example of his ability to create sensuality without objectification. Of course, part of that appeal was down to her, but a lot of the sex appeal from (for example) Dishonoured was due to Banton.
        The Hollywood Costume exhibition has already been in London, insanely jealous that LA-ers are getting to enjoy it now!

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  4. I adore Powell in this film. The Forgotten Man theme was big in the early 30s – (referenced in that great song from Gold Diggers of 1933) – about the WW1 soldiers who were “forgotten” by the government during hard times, I’m not huge Lombard fan, but she is quite adorable here. However, for me, Powell grounds the whole thing with his wonderful performance. A great choive and a great post about a great film (that just seems to get better and better).

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  5. I couldn’t find the comment button all of a sudden! For more than a moment I felt like a Forgotten Woman! In any case – terrific, witty commentary on a still relevant and entertaining movie. I couldn’t be happier to have this entry as part of the blogathon. 🙂 YAY for you, Ruth!! You’re tops.

    Aurora

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    1. Ha ha! Aurora, I doubt that you would *ever* be a Forgotten Woman! This movie is still relevant, isn’t it? I was thinking that as I watched it again a few weeks ago. Besides, William Powell never goes out of style.

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    1. It really is too bad it didn’t win any Oscars. Given the quality of the acting, the script, the directing, etc., it seems astonishing that it was shut out of all six categories for which it was nominated. However, I think that’s part of what makes the Oscars so interesting.

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  6. Sounds like a movie I would really enjoy. I’m going to find it on Netflix. I like books and movies that deal with poverty, especially around the time of the depression. Thanks for the heads up on this one, Ruth! Did you watch the Oscars last night? Probably a silly question!:)

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    1. Yes, this is a good film for a lot of reasons (witty script, the cast, the wardrobe), but the fact that it was made during the Depression makes it that much more special. I hope you’re able to see it!

      As for the Oscars, I did not watch it on TV but I did follow it on Twitter – which, as it turns out, is almost as good. Twitter is amazing that way. 🙂

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  7. I remember the first time I saw this film I didn’t really like it – I was probably 14. After I became a William Powell fan Iast year I rewatched it and really enjoyed it! I love Carole Lombard too! I am much more accustomed to fast dialogue now too 🙂

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  8. Such an absolutely perfect movie and performances. Definitely Oscar worthy. William Powell was definitely Oscar worthy too! I’d say, arguably, he gave at least four Oscar worthy performances in 1936. I can’t think of any other actor who had such elite quality of work in one year. It’s a shame that this has never been honored in some way. Great actor.

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