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MY MAN GODFREY

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Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  William Powell, Carole Lombard, Alice Brady, Eugene Pallette, Gail Patrick, Mischa Auer
Director:  Gregory La Cava
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  93 Minutes
Release Date:  July 10, 2001

“This place quite resembles an insane asylum!”
“Well, why not?  All you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of  people…”


Film ***1/2

My Man Godfrey is part screwball comedy, part social commentary…a film that works because it inspires laughs and makes good solid points about a time that was the era of the Depression, but just as relevant today with our homeless issues.  It’s held together solidly by a quickly paced sense of direction by Gregory La Cava and two charming and Oscar nominated performances by William Powell and Carole Lombard.

Powell is Godfrey, one of many “forgotten men” living in a crudely constructed shanty at the edge of a city dump (which we are cleverly led to after a terrifically and cleverly created opening credit sequence).  The lines between the haves and have-nots are clearly defined when a limo pulls up, revealing two young, wealthy sisters.  Cornelia Bullock (Patrick) offers Godfrey five dollars to return with her; she’s engaged in a scavenger hunt and has to find a forgotten man.  The notion doesn’t set well with the surprisingly eloquent and intelligent Godfrey, but he seems intrigued by the other sister, Irene (Lombard).

The two strike up a conversation.   What is a scavenger hunt, he wonders?   She explains it’s like a treasure hunt, except you have to find things that nobody wants.  He agrees to go with her, and before the night is over, the enthusiastic but empty headed Irene has determined to give Godfrey a job…as the family butler.

Godfrey’s new world is a far cry from his old one in every way imaginable…instead of dim surroundings and bright people, he’s surrounded by bright settings and dim people.  From the scheming Cornelia to the hapless father Alexander (Pallette) to the clueless mother Angelica (Brady) to her so-called protégé Carlo (Auer), the mansion is a madhouse, with the inmates running the asylum.  And of course, the least complication isn’t Irene, who begins to fall in love with the erudite butler.  Irene seems to be the one member of this family likely to learn something…even proclaiming that she’ll never play another game where human beings are hunted for.

Godfrey plays the role of servant as well as everyman…he is loyal and true, and situations are all the more funny because we see them through his eyes.  But Godfrey is not all he seems to be…a voice from his past soon appears to link him back to a world he once tried to forget.

There’s a lot to be said about the digs this film takes at society…in a country that never had an official class system or an aristocracy, money made and continues to make all the difference.  To watch the Bullock family squander the family fortune and lead lives of emptiness and ennui is absurd enough, but it becomes downright despicable when juxtaposed with Godfrey’s world of homelessness and living hand to mouth.  The movie asks us:  whom would we rather spend time with?  The answer is clear, which is why Godfrey chooses to do so, himself.

But to dwell on the issues would be to overlook the fun of the movie.  This is a hilarious and well structured comedy made buoyant by good performances and a sleek sense of pacing.  There aren’t many moments when we aren’t laughing, and the developing scenarios unfold with furtive humor.

It’s no wonder why My Man Godfrey remains popular today.  It’s a film that proves that serious points can be made between laughs.

Video ***1/2

Criterion scores again with what has to be by far the best looking video presentation of a 1930’s film I’ve yet seen.  This unkind decade gave birth to many classics, but most of them have shoddy prints and deteriorated negatives for modern fans to suffer through.  Godfrey is a pristine revelation…crisp, clean, and hardly marked by aging artifacts, the restoration job and digital transfer are stunning.  Blacks are deep, whites are bright, and every subtle shade of gray in between rings out with integrity and purity.  Grain is absent, and only very, very few instances show any kind of scratches or debris on the print.  Detail is remarkable throughout.  Fans of classic films will be thrilled!

Audio **1/2

Though a simple mono mix, this audio track is pleasantly clean and clear, with no muddled dialogue, distortions, or undue noise.  More than adequate.

Features ***1/2

The best extra is a commentary track by film historian Bob Gilpin, who delves deep into the film’s history, the cast, the structure, and so on.  So well done is the track that he actually pauses for key pieces of dialogue as they pertain to a point he’s discussing…a real treat for cinema students.  There is also an outtake reel…it’s only about a minute long, but packed with laughs (and frustrated swearing).  To round out, there is a trailer, a stills gallery, and an audio feature: the entire 1938 broadcast of the Lux Radio Theater adaptation of Godfrey, also starring Powell and Lombard.  Excellent package!

Summary:

A true comedy classic, My Man Godfrey hits all the right notes:  big laughs, great stars, thoughtful story and more.  With this top quality DVD offering from Criterion, classic movie lovers are in for a real treat.