To me, the key component of screwball comedy is frivolous people behaving as if their actions have no consequences—that is to say, as if they'll live forever—which, as God himself would tell you, is always funny. In that sense, William Powell's Godfrey is the opposite of a screwball character. His back is so bent with the weight of his own mortality that he's something of a tragic figure, and while his story features all the attributes of comedy, it reveals something much darker about the human condition—and why for my money this is the best of the classic screwballs.
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus asks a central question: if life has no point, then what's the point of living? For an existentialist, his answer is surprisingly upbeat (figure out what you enjoy doing, even if it's just rolling a rock up a hill, and stop worrying so much), but you need not have wondered whether existence is pointless to occasionally ask yourself whether the empty materialism at the heart of the American Dream is a worthwhile purpose, especially if, like Godfrey—and millions of other men in 1936—the American Dream has turned into your personal nightmare.
Godfrey has had plenty of time to ponder this question, and as he's turned it over and over in his mind, he's drifted—down, down, gently down, until he's finally come to rest in a cardboard shack in a garbage dump on the banks of the East River, a journey many men took as the Depression sent them reeling to live life on the bum. As the film opens, Godfrey has found no answers to his questions, and logic dictates that he has but one more move to make—to load up his pockets with stones and move permanently into the river itself.
And then into his life comes the Bullock family, a collection of upper class twits who—like the cast of a modern-dress production of The Cherry Orchard—live their lives oblivious to their impending ruin. Through the twisted logic typical of the genre, Godfrey becomes the butler to the Bullocks and in a mere 94 minutes, effortlessly and hilariously butles them—and himself—back into shape.
I guess as the title character in Eugene O'Neill's Lazarus Laughed discovered, once you've been dead, everything thereafter is a bit of a breeze.
I have one quibble with the movie—and it's the sort of quibble they used to burn people at the stake for—and that's Carole Lombard as Irene Bullock, her most famous and beloved role. She's the one character who never learns anything and the ending that puts her together with Godfrey feels to me more like the result of the genre's Rube Goldberg-like plot requirements than any deep connection between their characters.
Still, I always at least try to read a movie on its own terms, and maybe Irene and Godfrey do belong together. Maybe Godfrey loves her, deep down, because it was her nuttiness that breathed life back into the empty sack of his existence. Or maybe their union tells us that true happiness can only be found through a marriage of cool reason and inspired insanity. Or maybe when you look like Carole Lombard, all the other reasons go out the window.
And maybe I just talked myself out of my one quibble with the film.
Even so, I'm not sure—after all, Irene is awfully noisy—but after years on the banks of the East River with nothing to listen to but the sound of dump trucks, passing ships and his own fading heartbeat, maybe noisy is exactly what Godfrey is looking for.
winner: Dodsworth (prod. Samuel Goldwyn)
nominees: Camille (prod. Bernard H. Hyman and Irving Thalberg); Flash Gordon (prod. Henry MacRae); Fury (prod. Joseph L. Mankiewicz); The Petrified Forest (prod. Hal B. Wallis)
winner: My Man Godfrey (prod. Gregory La Cava)
nominees: Libeled Lady (prod. Lawrence Weingarten); Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (prod. Frank Capra); Modern Times (prod. Charles Chaplin); Swing Time (prod. Pandro S. Berman); Theodora Goes Wild (prod. Everett Riskin)
PICTURE (Foreign Language)
winner: Le crime de Monsieur Lange (The Crime of Monsieur Lange) (prod. André Halley des Fontaines)
winner: Walter Huston (Dodsworth)
nominees: Errol Flynn (The Charge Of The Light Brigade); Leslie Howard (The Petrified Forest); Spencer Tracy (Fury)
winner: Fred Astaire (Swing Time)
nominees: Charles Chaplin (Modern Times); Gary Cooper (Mr. Deeds Goes To Town); William Powell (The Great Ziegfeld, The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, My Man Godfrey, Libeled Lady and After The Thin Man)
winner: Greta Garbo (Camille)
nominees: Ruth Chatterton (Dodsworth); Bette Davis (The Petrified Forest); Sylvia Sidney (Fury and Sabotage)
winner: Irene Dunne (Show Boat and Theodora Goes Wild)
nominees: Jean Arthur (Mr. Deeds Goes To Town); Jean Harlow (Libeled Lady); Carole Lombard (My Man Godfrey); Myrna Loy (After The Thin Man and Libeled Lady); Ginger Rogers (Swing Time)
winner: William Wyler (Dodsworth)
nominees: George Cukor (Camille); Fritz Lang (Fury)
winner: Charles Chaplin (Modern Times)
nominees: Frank Capra (Mr. Deeds Goes To Town); Gregory La Cava (My Man Godfrey); George Stevens (Swing Time)
winner: Paul Robeson (Show Boat)
nominees: Humphrey Bogart (The Petrified Forest); Walter Brennan (Come and Get It); Eugene Pallette (My Man Godfrey); Akim Tamiroff (The General Died at Dawn)
winner: Gail Patrick (My Man Godfrey)
nominees: Mary Astor (Dodsworth); Alice Brady (My Man Godfrey); Helen Morgan (Showboat); Luise Rainer (The Great Ziegfeld)
winner: Sidney Howard (Dodsworth)
nominees: Charles Chaplin (Modern Times); Morrie Ryskind and Eric Hatch, from a novel by Eric Hatch (My Man Godfrey)
Charles Chaplin (Modern Times) (Score); James Basevi, Russell A. Cully, A. Arnold Gillespie, Max Fabian and Loyal Griggs (San Francisco) (Special Effects/Visual Effects)
Has anybody ever owned a song the way Paul Robeson owned "Ol' Man River"? Lots of people have sung it, but I doubt anybody has ever felt it the way Robeson felt "Ol' Man River."
Later in his career, Robeson turned this song of despair into an anthem of defiance, but here he embodies the weariness and desperation central to, first, his character, then the African-American experience in a Jim Crow society, and finally, the human condition itself—because let's face it, you haven't really lived life as most people live it until you've reached a point where you feel the line "I'm tired of living and scared of dying" right down in the queasy pit of your stomach.
Hopefully, if you've ever sojourned in that dark place, you've managed to climb back out again. After all, we'll be dead soon enough, and for a long, long time, so there's no point in getting a head start on it. But rest assured, triumph or fail, or something in between, eventually we all get plowed under just the same.
And Ol' Man River? He just keeps rolling along.