Tuesday, May 22, 2012

My Man Godfrey (1936)

My Man Godfrey (Gregory LaCava, 1936)  Bill Powell isn't given nearly enough credit in Hollywood history.  Popular in his day, he worked just enough to maintain his reputation and dignity, then retired and kept to himself.  But you watch him in something like My Man Godfrey—a not quite screwball comedy of the "The Rich, They are a Peculiar Lot" school—and you seem him stretch a little bit, and definitely see him playing a different character than the familiar Powell persona (even an extended drunk scene is played differently than his pleasantly soused Nick Charles from the "Thin Man" series), but still with that measure of insinuation that took every line of dialogue and made it spin on its heels.  His Godfrey Pike starts out as a bum living in a dump underneath the Brooklyn Bridge, where he's picked up by socialite-heads as part of a charity scavenger hunt for the idle rich.  
He attracts the attention of Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard, formerly Mrs. Powell) probably because he's different, a genuine "find," and he does stick out like a sore, if well-manicured, sore thumb among the derelicts.  Articulate and dignified, he's quietly worldly-wise, politely sarcastic (neat trick to pull off, that) and keeps a cool eye on the rich partiers for whom he's an oddity, a curiosity—like watching a car wreck—and slightly discounted, although he's  probably better than all of them as a human being.  Mentored by Irene, he assumes a position as a gentleman-butler for her family, a job that's bested a steady stream of other men.  But he does the job well, keeping his opinions to himself, the most sane man in a palatial asylum.

And an asylum it is, with the father (the foghorn-voiced Eugene Pallette, staple of Capra comedies) the only one with any sense (or schedule), and who has long given up on his family making any steps to adulthood.  Mother (Alice Brady) is a drama queen, who can only be distracted by her protege Carlo (Mischa Auer) and other daughter Cornelia (Gail Patrick) has to fill her empty life with schemes and conspiracies.  

But Irene is a dreamer.  In Godfrey, she finds a competent supplement, practical, in marked contrast to her flibbertigibbet, caring to her carelessness.
Such a creature, alien to her environment, makes her fall in love with old boy, while he still tries to make his way through Society, and back to the life he has previously abandoned.

It's all high-style and fast-paced.  And even though Lombard's society gal is a comic cry-baby notched up to "11" on a scale of "10," she is leavened somewhat by the tolerating, sly performance by Powell—who insisted that Lombard, his ex-wife, get the part. 

Powell was the epitome of well-mannered play-acting, while never, ever betraying a dull moment.  He made style which, when done in the hands of amateurs, can look confining, seem effortless, while also being insouciant, and fun.

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