It is the Great Depression, and this film presents its opening credits in economic terms. The camera pans across a series of surreal and glamorous Art Deco buildings and dazzlingly bright neon signs announcing the director, Gregory La Cava, the cast, and crew. The pan then continues into the dark, dirty city dump where our hero Godfrey “Smith” (William Powell) and other men live in ramshackle sheds. The credits set out right at the start one plot, the economic plot, and two economic realms: the dump at the bottom of the economic heap and the fantastic “white telephone” world by which 1936 Hollywood represented the top. The image that dominates the opening is trucks dumping millions of emptied tin cans into surrealistically vast heaps being picked through by grim, grimy, hungry men.
People called this kind of ramshackle settlement a “Hooverville” after the thirty-first president whose government-should-do-nothing policies had failed to head off the economic catastrophe. According to the administration, the country should just wait. In the Republican administration’s slogan, “Prosperity is just around the corner,” and the dwellers in the dump play on this sentence in the opening scene. The Victorians would have called these men “horrid unfortunates.” Today, we call them “the homeless” or “the jobless.” In 1936, they were called collectively “the forgotten man,” the prototypical victim of the economic slump. Often the “forgotten man” was a veteran of World War I as, today, we often find Vietnam or Iraq veterans among “street people.”
Two socialite sisters drive up to the dump. Competing in a scavenger hunt are Cornelia and Irene Bullock (Gail Patrick and the sublime Carole Lombard, respectively; Lombard was nominated for Best Actress for this role). For their scavenger hunt, the sisters are supposed to bring back a “forgotten man,” and they have come to the city dump to find one. There they find Godfrey “Smith” (William Powell) living in a packing case in this “Hooverville.”
Angered by the Bullock sisters’ indifference to the misery that they have so breezily blundered into, Godfrey pushes the clever, cruel Cornelia onto an ashpile but glimpses some sensitivity in the splendidly screwball Irene. She delivers him to the contest judge, wins the prize, and rewards Godfrey by giving him the job of butler.
In the swanky but totally wacky Bullock household, chaos prevails. Dippy Mrs. Bullock (Alice Brady, nominated for Best Supporting Actress) devotes herself to her Pekingese and her “protégé,” the phony musician, Carlo (Mischa Auer, also nominated for an Oscar). Mr. Bullock (the infallibly portly and paternal Eugene Pallette) grumbles about expenses and discipline, while his two daughters diddle their lives and money away in madcap society games and pranks.
Godfrey, however, begins to play the superb, unflappable, and indispensable butler. At first sight of him in his morning coat, Irene impulsively decides he will be her “protégé” on the model of Carlo or Cornelia’s “faithful George,” the college boy who follows her around doing what she tells him to (Robert Light). Indeed, Irene promptly falls in love with Godfrey. Pursuing the imperturbable butler, she throws fits, faints, tears, flowers, and kisses, but he remains adamant. Godfrey ignores it all, though, and Irene’s chase becomes the second, the romantic, plot.
Once he joins the Bullock madhouse, Godfrey moves into a well-worn literary and filmic role: the supremely competent (and completely class-ridden) butler: the admirable Crichton, Ruggles, Jeeves, or Hudson. Like them, Godfrey poses us the question, What is a man—his superior abilities and deeds or the inferior role in which society and economics have cast him? And that is the theme that, I think, underlies all the hijinks in this romantic and economic comedy.
The film explores the possibilities of the question in all kinds of ways, but chiefly by giving us images of what is less than human. For example, we are told that butlers are mere “fixtures” in the Bullock household. as Molly the maid (Jean Dixon) says, “We get a new one every day at this hour.” And Godfrey, in showing his morning suit, confesses, “I'm more or less standard.” Mrs. Bullock awakes to a hangover and “little men,” for whom Godfrey, serving her breakfast, supplies a “pixie remover.” Mrs. B., however, is afraid Godfrey himself will disappear (for other people are, to her, simply phantasms of her own addled wits, “little men”).
Another way of being less than fully human appears from the recurring references to the “madness” of the Bullock home and, indeed, of the rich generally. When Irene leads Godfrey into the scavenger hunt (at the “Waldorf-Ritz”), among the retrieved goats and corsets and spinning-wheels, he becomes a thing, an unwanted thing. As Irene explains, in a treasure hunt, you look for things everybody wants, but in a scavenger hunt, you look for what nobody wants. That includes the forgotten man of the Depression. Equally, when Godfrey himself pushes Cornelia into an “ashpile,” he is saying she is trash; and he too, in the course of the film, has to learn (as she does) that one acquires wisdom even from the people one despises.
The film provides another foil to the fully human by repeatedly linking people to animals. Mrs. Bullock brings a goat and a kid to the judge presiding over the scavenger hunt (fussy Franklin Pangborn), and we also see goldfish and monkeys as well as a very silly man. Irene puts a cabdriver’s horse in the library. Molly the maid refers to Mrs. Bullock as a lioness in her cage and her daughters as her cubs. Godfrey compares himself to a stray cat. Mrs. B. declares Irene’s affection for Godfrey: “He's the first thing she's shown any affection for since her Pomeranian died last summer.” And, in the finale, Godfrey hopes to take the place of that unfortunate canine. The completely self-centered parasite Carlo also becomes animal and sub-human, not from the Depression, but by his own doing. He provides an hilarious imitation of a gorilla. As Mr. Bullock says to him, “Why don't you stop imitating a gorilla and start imitating a man?” Finally the hardworking Bullock (and his name is another transformation of a human into an animal) throws Carlo out the window—more dumping.
Carlo is a parasite in the family, a sponger always eating. As such he plays a role, one of the stock characters of Roman comedies, particularly those of Plautus who focused on disordered families like the Bullocks. Other characters echo Roman comedy. The maid Molly is the ancilla. Mrs. B. is the matrona or mother. Cornelia’s “faithful George” is the lovelorn adulescens, and she, perhaps, the meretrix. the bad woman, while Irene is her opposite, the optimistic virgo. Mr. B. is the father-figure, the senex. (“Bullock” means a castrated bull.) Godfrey is the servus callidus, the clever slave who makes everything turn out all right (think Zero Mostel in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum). Godfrey could also be a god in disguise, a common figure in Roman comedies, someone come down from Olympus (Boston?) with miraculous powers to make everything turn out all right. That would explain his name, Godfrey. If I am right about these improbable parallels, we owe them to Eric Hatch on whose novel the film is based, perhaps also the screenwriters Morrie Ryskind and Robert Presnell. These parallels are another way of asking, are you intrinsically you or are you someone defined by something outside yourself, in this case, an ancient form of drama?
Another way we humans define ourselves is by the spaces we own. The film refers constantly to spaces, as in the credits. In the dump, different spaces are allotted to the different residents. Then there are the bedrooms of the three women: an incoherent, almost hallucinogenic space for Mrs. Bullock; a warm and welcoming bed for Irene, while Cornelia won’t even let Godfrey in. He has his own “butler’s room” in the household, his space, not to be entered, even by Irene. And at the end, his new office occupies the same space as his former shack. As Irene says, “It's much nicer than when I was here before.” So it is. And the bridge, prominent in the opening and closing scenes at the dump suggests the transitions for all the characters that the film proclaims in a somewhat clumsy speech by Godfrey after he has restored the Bullocks’ fortunes.
One could also express those transitions in the many ups and downs in the film. The “forgotten men” are down in a “dump.” Used tin cans are dropped on them. Godfrey has to climb the Bullocks’ enormous staircases to go up to deliver breakfasts. Later he carries Irene upstairs. In general, in this movie, characters are brought down before being brought up to maturity.
The above should give you enough to get a sharper focus on My Man Godfrey. But if you want more, there is more. If you don’t mind learning the endings to the two plots, click here.
As I see it, this screwball comedy asks, What is a man? And by its occasionally surreal style, it also asks, What is real? The answer is: what you don't throw away; what you value. This is a film about valuing. On the dump, the “forgotten men” matter less than tin cans or gorillas. No matter how courageously they may have fought the battles of free enterprise, the system does not value them. At the top, people (either rich or poor) are equally unreal, because the social butterflies treat them as unreal. Only at the end, when Godfrey provides for his fellows and when Irene picks a husband out of The Dump, do people become real—because they are valued.
One way to enjoy: I’ve suggested a theme against which you can read this pleasantly frivolous comedy. What makes us count as humans? Is our humanity something intrinsic in our being or does it depend on how we are valued by others?
Another way to enjoy: Watch Carole Lombard’s marvelously screwball brand of comedy. Indeed, watch all the acting by this marvelous collection of character actors: Eugene Pallette, Gail Patrick, Alice, Brady, Jean Dixon, and Mischa Auer. Stock figures from the stable of skillful supporting actors in 1930s and ‘40s Hollywood, it’s a pleasure to watch them at work.
Other ways to enjoy: I’ve suggested above some of the things that recur in this movie that you might want to keep your eye on: references to animals; spaces in which to live; ups and downs; the bridge; depression and Depression; echoes of Roman comedy or, more generally, roles and pretenses that define people. Spotting these and keeping in mind the general idea of humans being valued as humans, not something else, can give you a sharper focus.