This is a guest post from David Ford.
My Man Godfrey is a 1936 American comedy film directed by Gregory La Cava which is based on 1101 Park Avenue, a short novel by Eric S. Hatch. The story concerns a socialite who hires a derelict to be her family’s butler and falls in love with him. As a screwball comedy, My Man Godfrey is rife with inane behavior and a solid story that seems to transcend its own time period of the Great Depression in the 1930s and still applies to today’s world, and that’s rare because “comedy” as we know it depends so much on historical and cultural context.
William Powell stars as Godfrey “Smith” Parke, an unemployed “forgotten man” living with other homeless men down on their luck as the New York City dump in Hooverville on the East River near the 59th street bridge. During a New Year’s Eve party, a wealthy socialite names Cornelia Bullock offers him five dollars to be her “forgotten man” for a scavenger hunt. While Godfrey refuses Cornelia’s offer he is taken in by her sister, Irene. He finds her to be kind and offers to go with Irene back to the Waldorf-Ritz Hotel if for nothing else then it might be fun to help Irene beat Cornelia.
In the ballroom of the Waldorf-Ritz Hotel, we are introduced to several of the other main characters: Irene’s businessman father, Alexander Bullock, who waits resignedly for his wife Angelica and her mooching protégé Carlo. As a result of Godfrey’s arrival and authenticating himself as a “forgotten man,” Irene wins the game. In spite of this, Godfrey uses the opportunity to express his contempt for the audience’s antics before leaving in a huff. As she realizes what she has done, an apologetic Irene hires Godfrey as her butler, which he accepts with great gratitude.
Godfrey is warned by Molly (the Bullocks’ maid) on his first day as the Bullocks’ butler that he is merely the latest in a line of butlers who didn’t last due to the Bullocks’ conflicting personalities. While faced with these challenges, Godfrey proves to be remarkably competent and resourceful. Despite this, Cornelia intends to get him in trouble and throw him out again. Yet Irene proves to be much kinder and more empathetic than her sister (and her family) and becomes infatuated with Godfrey based simply on basic interactions. In fact, she kisses him, causing the job-anxious Godfrey to politely but firmly define the boundaries of their relationship.
A tea party hosted by Irene eventually leads to Godfrey being recognized by his longtime friend Tommy Gray. Godfrey makes up a story that he was Tommy’s valet at Harvard, and Tommy embellishes the story by adding a nonexistent wife and five children. We later learn Godfrey comes from a wealthy family with whom he has lost touch. In shock, Irene impulsively announces her engagement to Charlie Van Rumple, but after Godfrey congratulates her, she breaks down in tears and runs away. In a lunch conversation the following day, Tommy wonders what one of the elite “Parkes of Boston” is up to as a servant. A broken love affair left Godfrey broke and contemplating suicide, but the undaunted attitude of the homeless men living at the dump rekindled his spirit.
The engagement between Irene and Charlie ends eventually. On Godfrey’s day off, Cornelia attempts to seduce him, but he rejects her. So she plants her pearl necklace under his bed and calls the police. Police were unable to find the pearls inside the mattress, and Mr. Bullock (having deduced what Cornelia did) furiously informed her that the pearls were not insured, and if she did not find the necklace, she would lose a lot of money. Following that, we learn that both ladies were sent to Europe by the Bullocks.
So that Irene can get over her now-broken engagement, upon their return, Cornelia implies she is planning to seduce Godfrey again. Having had enough of the antics of the love-stricken Irene and the spiteful Cornelia, Godfrey resigns.
This movie is full of social commentary, including being careful about judging people based on their appearances. There’s more here than talking about wealth inequality, though. It’s about behavior, and the movie explores that through the conduct of this family, which is often undignified and childish way. One important message I took away was that the social order must be maintained, although with more equity for the most vulnerable.
If you’ve enjoyed the story so far (there’s a lot more after Godfrey resigns!), you’ll enjoy the film, which is underappreciated and from a bygone era. I won’t spoil any more of the plot, but I know you’ll enjoy some of the same things I love about this move, like its fast-paced, witty banter and the chemistry between William Powell and Carole Lombard.