We❤Criterion: My Man Godfrey
26 September 2018 16:40
For movie fans in the home-video age, the Criterion Collection is more than just an ongoing selection of wonderful films in wonderful DVD and Blu-ray editions – it’s an education and an obsession. Here at DRUGSTORE CULTURE, we share the same tingly feelings about Criterion, which is why we’re delighted to announce our partnership with their UK division. Starting with this essay about My Man Godfrey, which was released last week, we’ll be writing about everything they put out, and doing much more besides. After all, we ❤ Criterion.
Never mind King Kong. Tell Cornelius, Zira and their whole planet full of primates to take a hike. The best bit of aping around in the movies actually occurs in Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey (1936), and it occurs amid the satin splendour of a Fifth Avenue townhouse.
There, bawling on the sofa, is Irene Bullock, one of the daughters of the family. Her mother fusses and fusses over her, before finally settling on an idea. ‘Carlo,’ she says – turning to the strange man dressed in a dinner suit who is mysteriously referred to as her protégé – ‘do the gorilla for Irene, it always amuses her.’ Carlo ruffles his hair, sticks his tongue into his bottom lip, lowers his centre of gravity, whirls from chair to chair, and ends up swinging and ululating from an elaborate set of shutters. Irene is no calmer at the conclusion of this performance than she was at the start of it.
It ought to be said that this scene is meant to be weird. It sets up the punchline that is the butler Godfrey’s entrance into the room. (He takes a quizzical look at the madness before him, but otherwise remains arrow-straight and unruffled, with a tray of drinks in his hands.)
But it also ought to be said that this scene is properly, off-the-scale, off-the-charts weird. Much like the rest of My Man Godfrey, it feels less like a prestige comedy from the Thirties, and more like the sort of gonzo romp that would have played well in midnight movie theatres in the Seventies. When Irene subsequently whispers to Godfrey that she was just pretending to be upset, and plants a surprise kiss on his lips, you begin to wonder whether drugs, drink or sleeplessness have somehow taken hold of your system.
If this makes My Man Godfrey sound like a sloppy, uncultured movie, then rest assured – it is not. In fact, it is meticulous right from its opening credits sequence. Here, the camera pans across the Manhattan skyline at cocktail hour, as the names of the cast and crew are displayed in flashing lights on the rooftops. But then the camera keeps on panning, and keeps on panning, out past the lights and the nightclubs, to a dark, decrepit spot down by the East River. This is where we first meet Godfrey, scratching out a life among the rubbish heaps. It is one of the most elegant, yet depressing, transitions in cinema.
It is a strange first meeting, not least because Godfrey is played by the all-time champion of urbanity, William Powell. And it gets even stranger when the skittish Irene (Carole Lombard) and her aloof sister Cornelia (Gail Patrick) descend from their expensive car to join him. They are looking for a ‘forgotten man’ to complete the list of items required for a ‘scavenger hunt’ that is being put on for rich folks at an uptown hotel. Godfrey is that forgotten man.
And so, another elegant but depressing transition – to the complacently wealthy people at the ‘Waldorf-Ritz’. Dozens of bow-tied and ball-gowned revellers swirl around the screen, along with balloons, goats, monkeys, forgotten men and all the other spoils of the scavenger hunt. Presumably, this was a difficult scene to film, but La Cava was a filmmaker who didn’t stop at simply achieving the difficult. He experimented and he gambled. At one point, the hotel-din grows so loud that the Bullock parents have to shout at each other, and the movie stops caring whether we can hear them or not.
My Man Godfrey’s individual eccentricities (the gorilla scene, the drowned-out dialogue) add to the unpredictability of the whole. First-time viewers might think that they can anticipate what happens next: Godfrey becomes the Bullocks’ butler and teaches the family some morals, all whilst he and Irene fall in love. And, strictly speaking, they’d be right – because that sort of is what happens next. But they’d also be wrong – because not a single scene or character interaction plays out in a normal way. Your anticipation is meaningless.
The film even dares to ask the most dangerous question in romantic comedy: should we want these people to be together? Irene’s heart is supersized, but there are times when you begin to wonder about its inner workings. As her mother says of her friendliness towards Godfrey, ‘He’s the first thing she’s shown any affection for since her Pomeranian died last month.’ It’s a testament to the knockout brilliance of Carole Lombard – as well as to her chemistry with her former, real-life husband Powell, with whom she remained close – that she manages to pull off this difficult role.
And there’s also room for some good, old-fashioned kinkiness. Remember Carlo, the protégé of Mother Bullock? As Farran Smith Nehme writes in her booklet essay for the Criterion release of My Man Godfrey, ‘Most of the correspondence [between the filmmakers and the censors] involved stern warnings to make sure the term protégé could not possibly be taken as any kind of euphemism for gigolo.’ In which case, the censors lost. We all know what’s really going on – including, it seems, Irene. She swiftly takes to calling Godfrey her protégé.
They say that Irene’s character inspired one critic to type the word ‘screwball’ into his review, which was then applied to a whole subgenre of movies. But the screwball comedies that followed My Man Godfrey, even the great ones such as Easy Living (Mitchell Leisen,1937) or Bringing up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938), were only ever distant relations, twice-removed. None reached the same level of innuendo, unconstrained imagination and straight-up weirdness. And to those who say different, I have one response: the gorilla will see you now.