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The Carole Lombard Memorial Blogathon: the Two Godfreys

Hold on tight to your seats, ladies and gentlemen, because this is the day of the Carole Lombard Memorial Blogathon, and if you’re ever been around here before, you know I worship Carole Lombard, that we lost too soon and was absolutely irreplaceable.

The Blogathon is hosted by The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Carole & Co, so be sure to check the link, and you’ll find a wealth of posts about Lombard, her movies and her life.
And then come back here, because we are about to discuss My Man Godfrey, and also, My Man Godfrey.
It’s going to be a gas.

Let’s get the personal details out of the way from the start, My Man Godfrey, directed by Gregory La Cava in 1936, saved my life. This is not melodramatic as it sounds – but really, there was a moment in my life in which William Powell’s Godfrey came to me in the right moment, and helped me get out of a very bad time.

Which is, indeed, what Godfrey does in the movie, that tells us a story of a down-on-his-luck man (Godfrey himself), that is living in a dump after the crash of ’29, and is rescued, on a lark, by air-headed socialite Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard). Hired as a butler, Godfrey will use his skills and his integrity to rescue from themselves Irene and her family.

Based on the novel 1101 Park Avenue by Eric Hatch, the movie is a perfect comedy, with a wonderful cast and pitch-perfect performances – and probably for this reason the movie was the first in Hollywood history to land four Oscar nominations for best actors and actress, and for best supporting role, male and female (it was also nominated for best director and best screenplay). Produced in a moment of extreme financial straits for Universal, it was a relatively cheap film, and belongs to the vanished genre of the screwball comedy – the dialogue is fast and snappy, the situations funny and ridiculous, and there is an underlying sentimental comedy motif that, thanks to the tongue-in-cheek attitude of the stars, is never saccharine.

Given the premise – a former member of the healthy, enterprising upper class now in the employ of the idle rich, observing with aristocratic detachment the shenanigans of a bunch of people with too much money and too little sense – might run the risk of feeling cynical, but the interpretation of Powell is so measured and heartfelt that we have no problem believing he is a decent guy, a little worst for wear, but with his heart in the right place and a dignity about him that’s enough to set crooked things straight.

Powell’s chemistry with Lombard is obvious – the two leads had been married in real life, and Powell had suggested Lombard for the role, helping her beat the other candidates for the part – Marion Davies, Constance Bennett and Miriam Hopkins – despite being about ten years older than the character she had to play. Indeed, Lombard was actually older than Gail Patrick, that plays her evil older sister.

Everyday life on set was pretty exciting – not only did Lombard like to adlib her parts, dropping obscenities to tease and mock the director, but Powell notoriously went AWOL after a night spent drinking with the director, as they tried to develop the character of Godfrey.

“WE MAY HAVE FOUND GODFREY LAST NIGHT BUT WE LOST POWELL. SEE YOU TOMORROW.”

(telegram from William Powell to Gregory La Cava)

Of the six Oscar nominations, the movie won none – proving the age-old rule that the Academy would rather give its award to dramas than comedies. And yet My Man Godfrey is still considered to this day one of the 50 (or 100, or 10) best comedies of all time, and was recognized by the Library of Congress as culturally significant.

So in 1957 they remade it.

Well, to be fair, in ’57 the accolades were not yet official, and the ’36 movie was just a great comedy that was right for a remake.
The film, directed by German emigre Henry Kostner, was intended to be the first starring vehicle of German actor O.W. Fischer, and so with a swift application of movie magic Godfrey was transformed from a “forgotten man”, a victim of the Crash of ’29, into a gentleman coming from Austria.
Then Fischer dropped out of the movie, and was sued by Universal, and replaced by David Niven – that thus ended up playing an Austrian.
He’s not a hobo, he’s a sailor.

And mind you – David Niven is absolutely perfect, and if possible is even better than Powell in the role (but then, I am a David Niven fan, so sue me). Niven replaces Powell’s bewilderment at the madness in the Bullock family with a restrained sense of embarrassment, and his scenes are pure gold.

The problem is Irene, that in 1957 was portrayed by June Allyson.
An obvious issue here is, of course, one of age – Irene Bullock was written as a character in her late teens, and if Carole Lombard was 27 when she played the part, Allyson was 40, and she really comes across as a very adult lady acting very childish. What was fun and endearing with Lombard, is often grating and insufferable with Allyson, and pretty awkward.

To add a little complication to the plot, the 1957 movie introduced a former girlfriend of Godfrey – a character that was implied in an elegant bit of writing in the first movie, and that here comes walking on the screen. It is not a great idea, despite her being played by Eva Gabor.

But maybe what’s really missing is the spirit of the first movie – My Man Godfrey was inspired by a Franklin D. Roosevelt speech, in which the president mentioned the “forgotten men”, the victims of the Crash. The shadow of the financial crisis weighs heavily on the first movie, and we soon empathize with this strange situation: skilled, straightforward people like Godfrey are living in a dump (literally) while wealthy fools waste their times and their money. There is a sense of social criticism that underlays the movie and lends this screwball comedy a sort of gravitas.
But in 1957, the economy was flourishing, it was good to be rich and idle, and there were no forgotten men on the streets. As a result the social commentary is wasted and pointless. It is still a fun movie to watch – indeed, I saw this well before I saw the original (Niven fan, remember?) – but it is nothing more, and at moments comes across as very awkward. The best bit is certainly Godfrey’s first tour of the Bullock house, meeting the members of this dysfunctional family: Niven carries the whole scene with restrained Britishness, and the supporting cast (especially Jessie Royce Landis) is more than adequate.
The rest is OK – but I doubt the 1957 movie ever saved anyone’s life.

Indeed, it contributed to kill June Allyson’s movie career, and the actress decamped to TV shows after the movie’s very poor reception.

Due to complicated legal issues, the 1936 My Man Godfrey is currently out of copyright, and you can watch it on various platforms – the copies are, alas, usually very poor. If you can, track down a good DVD copy – it was after all a star-studded A-list production, made in a time when the movies were big, and the black and white cinematography is gorgeous.
And there’s Carole Lombard in it, playing a sweet, good-hearten young woman, and radiating charisma like a supernova.

What do you say? The digitally colorized version?
We don’t talk about such things.

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