Tag Archives: 1936

CLFP: “My Man Godfrey” (1936)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A magnificently crafted screenplay and powerhouse comedic performances by Carole Lombard, William Powell, and Alice Brady are the hallmarks of this beloved zany comedy that is unmatched in its blend of screwball camp and surrealist humor. It has become one of the most respected comedies to come out of Hollywood, and its appeal stands the test of time–the script is just as hysterically funny today as it was in 1936. Its unceasing barrage of witty lines and humorous situations renders the film a difficult one to keep up with, and a real challenge to examine.

Godfrey Smith (William Powell) is out of work, and makes his home at the city dump in the midst of the Great Depression. A socialite by the name of Cornelia Bullock (Gail Patrick) approaches him, explaining that she is in need of a “forgotten man” to complete a scavenger hunt for a party. She offers him $5 if he obliges. Offended, he chases her off, forcing her to trip and fall on an ash pile. Cornelia’s sister Irene (Carole Lombard) is delighted at this spectacle, and she and Godfrey strike up a discussion about the nature of scavenger hunts and the ethics of using human beings as objects in a game (“It’s kind of sordid when you think about it,” Irene says). In order to prevent Cornelia from winning the scavenger hunt, Godfrey offers to be Irene’s “forgotten man.”

The party is chaos, with participants trying to register all their finds at the same time. Amid people showing off items such as spindles, goldfish, and Chinese gongs, Godfrey and Irene emerge and Irene is declared the winner of the scavenger hunt. When Godfrey is asked to make a speech, he calls the entire party a group of “nitwits,” saying that it will be a pleasure to return to the dump. However, in appreciation for his help in her victory, Irene offers him a job as the family butler. He accepts, grateful to have a job.

When Godfrey starts work the next day, he learns the extent of the Bullock family’s eccentricity. Irene has a tendency to throw childlike temper tantrums, which the dizzy scatterbrained Mrs. Bullock (Alice Brady) treats with performances by her live-in protegé, Carlo, which invariably upset Irene even further. The long-suffering Mr. Bullock is having trouble with money, but every time the concept is mentioned, Carlo sighs dramatically and Mrs. Bullock commands the conversation to stop as it’s “upsetting Carlo.” Cornelia is set on revenge against Godfrey for taking away her scavenger hunt victory, but Mrs. Bullock ultimately protects him saying “He’s the first thing Irene has shown any affection for since her Pomeranian died last summer.” Indeed, Irene takes to Godfrey very quickly, in a way that makes Godfrey uncomfortable.

Cornelia, still set on getting Godfrey fired, hatches a scheme to accuse him of stealing her pearls. Godfrey realizes that he has been framed, and begins to hatch a scheme of his own. We learn that Godfrey is not all that he has claimed to be. Raised in a rich, aristocratic family, Godfrey chose to live in the dump to get a taste of how the other half lives. Godfrey’s scheme involved buying stock for the family by taking Cornelia’s pearls and transmuting them into gold, then into stock, then back into pearls. Cornelia got her pearls back, the family’s money troubles were over, and Cornelia had a complete change of heart in regard to Godfrey. He did take some money for himself in order to open a nightclub called “The Dump,” and there he made a name for himself again and married Irene, whose feelings he had begun to return.

As uproariously funny as this movie is, My Man Godfrey is an incredibly difficult piece to analyze. The dialogue is so rapid fire and each line so funny that it is difficult to extract specific bits of dialogue that drive the story forward or provide important information about the characters. The nature of the film is that every bit of dialogue is important, and trying to find a quote more noteworthy than another is an exercise in futility. This is a brilliantly crafted film in every way; from the screenplay to the directing to even the cinematography, My Man Godfrey is a screwball masterpiece. Though Lombard was undoubtedly the star, Alice Brady gives a bravado performance as the nutty mother that nearly steals the show. The moment she shows up at the scavenger hunt party carrying a goat, the character of the mother is established. Speaking in a high, Billie Burke-like voice with a quirky laugh, she plays an essential role in creating the film’s zany quality.

Alice Brady as the mother.

In addition to its status as one of the great screwball comedies of all time, this movie is notable for the unique offscreen relationship of Lombard and Powell. After making Man of the World together, Lombard and Powell were married in early 1931. Their marriage didn’t last long, they were divorced after 2 years, but they remained good friends and worked together wonderfully. In fact, William Powell refused to do the film unless Carole Lombard was cast as Irene–he felt her perfect for the role. Their chemistry is evident in My Man Godfrey, and though they had divorced 3 years earlier, the friendship that they held offscreen is felt by the audience.

There exists a series of outtakes from the set of My Man Godfrey that show the fun atmosphere on the set, and also demonstrate Carole Lombard’s famous love of cursing. It was said that she loved to shock people with her ability to let out strings of 4-letter words, inconsistent with her angelic face and outwardly soft appearance. I am including these outtakes below.

See you next time!

Advertisements

Summer Under the Stars Blogathon: “San Francisco” (1936)

Jeanette MacDonald singing “Nearer My God to Thee” with survivors of the 1906 earthquake in “San Francisco” (1936).

As a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, this film has always held a special place in my heart. The story is of a young singer, Mary Blake (MacDonald), who emigrates to California just prior to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and is torn between two venues–the lower-class Barbary Coast, run by “Blackie” Norton (Clark Gable) and the Tivoli Opera House, for which her classically trained voice is better suited. She is also torn romantically between the operators of the two venues, and the beginning of the movie is dedicated to her exploration of this conflict within herself.

The story is nothing special, it has been done in different ways many times before and the only thing that really makes it stand out is Jeanette MacDonald’s famous soprano voice, singing operatic arias at Tivoli, and the jazzy tune “San Francisco” at Blackie Norton’s.”San Francisco,” by the way, has become one of the official anthems of the city, and has been covered by countless artists over the years since this film’s release. Here is a video of Jeanette singing the song in the movie.

I sincerely apologize for the quality of this particular video, specifically the advertisement at the beginning and the coloration of the film. This is the only video on the internet of this number as it exists in the film, and I am unable to upload a more quality one on my outdated computer. So this will have to do.

What I would like to focus on is not the story, not the songs (though admittedly Jeanette MacDonald is a highly accomplished classical singer, and it is a joy to watch her), but rather the final 15 minutes of the movie. As Mary Blake performs at Blackie’s, the earth begins to shake, first a little, then violently as glasses break, chandeliers fall, and the entirety of the audience flees for their lives and people pour into the streets. What follows is the most lavishly constructed disaster scene in a film up to that point, and if I do say so myself, one of the most technically advanced disaster scenes of any decade (adjusting for technology available at the time of filming, of course). With the use of quick cuts at the height of the earthquake sequence, followed by long, wide shots at the end, director W.S. Van Dyke succeeds in evoking a crippling sense of panic and fear followed by an almost serene surveying of the damage and loss of life, key real life emotions in the wake of any disaster.

In this video, pay close attention to the shaking ground. That was not trick camerawork, as would have been employed in earlier films–the production designer, Slavko Vorkapich, created a set that rocked and shook, simulating the strength and damage the earthquake wrought 30 years prior in real time. The crumbling San Francisco buildings were dollhouse miniatures shot from below in order to make them look like tall structures capable of the damage Van Dyke sought to replicate.

The earthquake starts at 1:03.

It is clear just how much future disaster films took from this scene. From Earthquake (1972), which employed the same rocking set that Vorkapich created for San Francisco, straight down to the epic Titanic (1997), which contains a scene in which a mast falls crashing onto a civilian almost identical to what occurs at 2:30 in the video above.

The final scene of the film is one in that, no matter how many times I watch this movie, never fails to give me goosebumps. High above the city in the evacuation tents, Mary Blake sings the spiritual “Nearer My God to Thee” a capella with the survivors of the earthquake. It is a somber melody that echoes the melancholy felt at the loss of all that was precious to them. Soon, a messenger announces that the fire following the earthquake has been extinguished. Amidst cheers and choruses of “We’ll build a new San Francisco!” all their cares melt away as they march proudly back to the city, singing a joyful rendition of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The film ends on a note of hope and optimism for what the future holds for this city and all those who reside there.

The theme of eternal hope in the wake of a disaster is sure to pack a punch for anyone, but as a native of the San Francisco Bay, this scene is especially powerful emotionally. To know that this tells the story of your own history and your own identity, evokes a very special and indescribable sense of belonging and ownership of the tale. Each time I watch this film, my love and pride for San Francisco is renewed, and that is a unique connection that can’t be quantified.

Here is a link to the last scene of the film, and I have followed it with pictures of San Francisco as it looked after the earthquake, juxtaposed with images of San Francisco today.

Click here to watch the ending of San Francisco on the official TCM website.

Upper Market Street during the fire that raged after the earthquake in 1906.

Upper Market Street today.

Lotta’s Fountain, the official meeting place for families searching for loved ones during the 1906 earthquake.

Lotta’s Fountain today. Every year at 5:12 am (the time of the initial shock) on the anniversary of the earthquake, a ceremony is held here in remembrance of the victims and in honor of the survivors.

The Ferry Building was miraculously untouched during the earthquake. Here is a sharp contrast between the untouched Ferry Building in the background and a completely destroyed building in the foreground.

The Ferry Building as it looks today, a real monument to San Francisco. Today it not only serves as the port for ferries to and from Marin County, but boasts a popular array of shops and restaurants inside.