My Man Godfrey

My Man Godfrey (1936)
Criterion Collection
Cast: Eugene Pallette, Carole Lombard, William Powell, Alan Mowbray
Extras: Commentary Track, Lux Radio Theater Adaptation, Newsreel, Production Stills, Rare Outtakes, Theatrical Trailer

The Great Depression. Not a time one would generally associate with laugh out loud humor but Hollywood has an odd tendency to release great comedy films during times of national hardship and struggle. Poking fun at the very real circumstances of the time is a sure-fire way to get an easy laugh and the suffering populace is only too happy to seek temporary relief in the on-screen antics of their favorite movie stars.

The Depression era saw the rise of what came to be known as the screwball comedy. These films typically based their humor on the blurring of standard gender and class roles — free-spirited dizzy dames tangle with stuffy society men looking for a way out while the poor are truly rich and the rich are just ordinary folk. Screwball comedies went the way of the dodo around the start of World War Two but they offer a unique snapshot of popular culture in the 1930s and the best of them remain wickedly funny even for modern-day audiences.

Among the best of the screwball comedies is Gregory La Cava’s 1936 hit, "My Man Godfrey." The queen of the screwballs, Carole Lombard, stars as Irene Bullock, a rich society girl with her heart in the right place but her head in the clouds. While competing in a scavenger hunt with her wealthy socialite pals, she and her stuck-up sister Cornelia (Gail Patrick) pull up in their fancy car alongside a hobo camp at the city dump to find a "forgotten man" and thus win the game. Happening upon down-and-out Godfrey (William Powell), the haughty and rude Cornelia soon finds herself sitting in an ash pile while sweet Irene returns to the hotel with the curious Godfrey in tow.

On the spur of the moment, Irene offers Godfrey the job of family butler and he accepts, little guessing just how cuckoo the Bullock family really is. Family patriarch Alexander (Eugene Pallette) is a well-meaning man who can’t control his family and is on the brink of financial and personal ruin due to some shady stock dealings. Angelica (Alice Brady) is his wife, a woman as spacey as her daughter who dotes on her protégé — phony artist Carlo (Mischa Auer) — and is often oblivious to her own surroundings. And Irene and Cornelia are both spoiled daddy’s girls with no sense of the real world.

The only sane people in the house are Godfrey and wise-cracking maid Molly (Jean Dixon) and both she and Irene are madly in love with the butler. It’s up to Godfrey to make things right for both the Bullock family and the comrades that he left behind in the city dump. But is Godfrey really who he seems to be or does he have his own secrets to hide?

"My Man Godfrey" offers up a fairy tale version of New York in which the rich are somewhat goofy, but generally well-meaning, and the poor are well-spoken and just waiting to catch a break. It’s easy to see why folks suffering through the Depression would find relief in a world that looks and feels familiar but never has, and never will, exist.

But the real driving force behind the film is the witty dialogue that flies non-stop in the form of one-liners and other zingers. The interplay of the characters is delightful and Lombard and Powell are especially at ease playing off one another. "My Man Godfrey" was the first film to receive nominations in all four Academy Award acting categories and, while it didn’t win a single Oscar, the talent of its cast can’t be denied.

"My Man Godfrey" is presented in its original <$PS,full frame> aspect ratio and the folks at Criterion have done a fine restoration job on this 65-year-old classic. Especially when compared to the awful public domain copies making the rounds on cheap DVDs from no-name companies, the picture on this new disc is nothing short of amazing. The overall image is a tad soft and grainy but the black and white cinematography is well served by the excellent contrast and black levels. Fine detail is evident throughout and the transfer is only marred by some slight physical imperfections and the occasional dropped frame. This isn’t quite as good a restoration job as that seen on Criterion’s "The Third Man" but this is far and away the best that "My Man Godfrey" has probably looked since its initial release and this disc puts all the other DVD versions to shame.

The original English mono soundtrack is presented in a <$DD,Dolby Digital> 1.0 mix. The restoration work on the audio side has resulted in a track that is mercifully free of harshness, hiss, and distortion. This is still a very limited audio mix but the witty dialogue is always understandable and that’s the key consideration for a film of this type and vintage.

As a full-blown special edition, "My Man Godfrey" has some enticing extras that make the steep $39.99 price point somewhat easier to swallow. First up is a running commentary with film historian Bob Gilpin. He takes a very scholarly approach and offers an in-depth examination of the film’s place in the history of Depression-era cinema and society. I has hoping for more insight into the characters, actors, and production of the film but it’s still a very solid <$commentary,commentary track>.

Next up is a return to one of my favorite forgotten forms of entertainment, old time radio shows. Presented here is the Lux Radio Theater adaptation of "My Man Godfrey" from 1938 featuring most of the original cast reprising their on-screen roles. This abbreviated hour-long show captures much of the spirit and witty banter of the original and even includes the advertisements for the sponsor’s soap products. This bonus feature is great fun in its own right.

But for sheer entertainment value nothing beats the short blooper reel featuring the cast flubbing their lines and letting loose a litany of foul language. I’m surprised that this material has survived this long and thanks go to Criterion for getting it on this disc.

Rounding out the extras are a few short theatrical newsreels examining real-life Depression-era society, a small archive of production photos, and the film’s theatrical trailer.

"My Man Godfrey" is still as much fun today as it was for Depression-weary audiences in the 1930s. It’s a shame that the screwball comedy is now extinct but fans of classic film and witty comedies are sure to delight in this new special edition DVD. As is typical for a Criterion release, the video and audio have been completely restored and the included extras are quite unique in nature. The end result is a film presentation that can’t be beat and "My Man Godfrey" comes very highly recommended.