Director Gregory La Cava’s 1936 film “My Man Godfrey” is often, rightfully, heralded as one of the best screwball comedies ever made. If you’ve never seen “My Man Godfrey” you owe it yourself to check it out. The film’s reputation is well deserved. For one thing, the cast is a dream—it was the first movie ever nominated for Oscars in all four acting categories. The movie stars real-life ex-couple William Powell and Carole Lombard. Powell, who was loaned out to Universal pictures from MGM where he was under contract, would only agree to do the film if Lombard was cast as his co-star.
Based on a novel by Eric Hatch who also co-wrote the screenplay with Marx Brothers scribe Morrie Ryskind, “My Man Godfrey” has one of the finest casts of any screwball comedy. With Powell and Lombard centering up the cast, the film also includes Alice Brady, Gail Patrick, Jean Dixon, Mischa Auer (whom I know best from being an exasperated employer of Abbott and Costello), and the great character actor Eugene Pallette. Released during The Great Depression “My Man Godfrey” is one of the films that very much comments on the realities of life, while also providing an escapist entertainment—as opposed to the say “art deco fantasy world” of an RKO Rogers and Astaire film.
Powell plays Godfrey, who appears to be an out and out bum and drifter that Irene Bullock (Lombard)—a wealthy socialite from an eccentric family—finds in a Manhattan dump while playing a society ball scavenger hunt on the lookout for a “forgotten man.” This is one of the ways “My Man Godfrey” comments on the class disparity of the time when Irene takes Godfrey back to the hotel where the game is centered, we see other people dressed up like they’re cosplaying The Monopoly Man carrying things like old junk and goats. These people don’t see “forgotten men” as people, just objects for their own amusement.
Irene takes a linking to Godfrey and offers him a job as the family butler—and quickly falls head over heels in love with him. Yet there remains something mysterious about Godfrey’s past and what brought to him his days as a drifter. This past of Godfrey’s becomes a little clearer when an old time friend of Godfrey’s shows up to a party at the Bullock home, and is surprised to see his old friend playing Butler.
“My Man Godfrey” is an absolute dream of a film, a brilliant, madcap comedy with social commentary and a cast that simply shines. Lombard, who would tragically pass away in 1942 at the age of 33, shows off what remarkable comedy chops she had. Reportedly, Lombard had a habit of slipping four-letter words into her dialogue, causing numerous retakes—a blooper reel exists for the film and you can see an example of this on the new blu-ray release from The Criterion Collection.
The first time I saw my “My Man Godfrey” the print looked horrible, the movie fell into the public domain sometime after the ‘60s and for years most copies of the film circulating on TV and home video were taken from awful looking prints, worn, faded, full of damage. In what may be a mixed blessing, as Criterion’s new blu-ray features a truly stunning 4K restoration of the film made from the original camera negative—any existing OCN from this era is a minor miracle—and a safety-stock fine grain print. The results are amazing, there are some shots in the film that look new. It’s the finest this movie has ever looked, and that beautiful, silvery black and white nitrate image shines.
Extra features on this blu-ray include a new interview with jazz and film critic Garry Giddins and one with critic Nick Pinkerton on director La Cava. That aforementioned reel of outtakes (another surviving miracle), newsreels showing the great depression, and a “Lux Radio Theater” adaptation of the film from 1938 round out the bonus material. Criterion has taken one of the most beloved screwball comedies of all times and brought it high definition in a very attractive package, with a picture and sound quality that can not be beaten.
“My Man Godfrey” is a must for any classic film library, this new blu-ray from The Criterion Collection is a new favorite for sure. What a joy to see a film as beloved as this sparkle with brand new life, pick this one up, you won’t regret it. See you next week.