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.
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.”
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.