Monday, August 2, 2010

Notes on my Favorite Films Year By Year (1936): My Man Godfrey

For most of his life, Godfrey Parke had had it made. Coming from a wealthy family with a healthy inheritance awaiting him and possessing a natural charm that drew everyone around him in, it seemed like life only had wine and roses in store for Godfrey. Life has a way of falling apart at the drop of a designer hat though and a splintered love affair had hit Godfrey hard. Depressed and near suicidal, Godfrey escapes to a depressed hobo-village down by the east river where he discovered that happiness has little to do with financial prosperity.

Gregory La Cava had been knocking around the film industry for as long as it had basically existed. Born in Pennsylvania in 1892, La Cava got his start in the silents in 1916 as an animator. Dozens upon dozens of animated and finally short live-action films followed for the ambitious La Cava, who quickly established himself as one of the most prolific fellows in the silent-film industry. He made the jump to talkies fairly smoothly but he never quite made the leap to the top-tier directors of his day. No one could argue with the spirited and brilliant touch he gave to My Man Godfrey though, his masterpiece from 1936 that remains one of Hollywood's greatest and most moving comedies.

La Cava crafted the script of the very brave My Man Godfrey from an Eric Hatch novel along with screenwriter Morrie Ryskind and Hatch himself. Opening with a cruel scavenger hunt perpetrated by seemingly selfish socialite Irene Bullock, who decides a homeless man would be the greatest prize of all, My Man Godfrey remains as surprising and potent as ever. The never less than brilliant script would act as a romantic screwball comedy but would also attempt to come to terms with the terrible financial depression America was suffering at the time. My Man Godfrey would lament the plight of the working class while poking fun at the rich and powerful that had stepped all over them, and it would do so with a style and wit that has rarely been matched to this day.

With La Cava's sure-handed touch and the wondrous lead work by William Powell and the glorious Carole Lombard (still probably the greatest female comedian the screen has ever seen), My Man Godfrey remains one of the most purely entertaining and thought-provoking Hollywood films of the thirties. It would snag a solid six Oscar nominations (although it was shut-out) and it would briefly give Gregory La Cava the respect that had mostly alluded him. Sadly, he would only complete a half dozen or so more films before he passed away in 1952.

My Man Godfrey is available as part of The Criterion Collection, where a brilliant series of outtakes featuring the beautiful Lombard cursing like a sailor can be enjoyed as an extra. Avoid at all costs the colorized version that is floating around, as it mercilessly destroys the wonderful black and white photography of Ted Tetzlaff that is so essential to the film's success.

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