Sunday 27 October 2013

My Man Godfrey (1936)

'All you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kinda people'.
I bought this film a long time ago because I thought it might have David Niven in it.  As it happens, I was really after the 1957 remake, but at least this way I had something on my shelves to stand for 1936.  'My Man Godfrey' is a screwball comedy, meaning that everybody speaks at twice the normal speed, and regards a family of upper-middle-class twits, New York's high society, taking in a homeless man to work as a butler.  Said butler, Godfrey, then becomes romantically entangled with the daughter of the family, but feels it's inappropriate for a mere butler to woo, or be wooed by, a socialite so high above his station.

Godfrey (William Powell) is a fine fellow, and immediately likeable, with his position as a 'forgotten man' made good use of.  The rich ninnies he serves are immensely patronising to him on account of his recent homelessness, but Godfrey doesn't take offence, preferring to remain perfectly gracious, coolly receiving their awkward compliments in the spirit in which they were meant.  He's quietly amused by the outrageously dysfunctional family, and eventually saves them from their folly and, with a Gilbertian inevitability, turns out to be a man from their own class who had arrived at hard times almost on purpose, and is thus an appropriate suitor for the daughter (whether he wants to be her suitor or not).  It's a classic American happy ending: a family difficulty in the great depression is solved by the butler investing in stocks and bonds, so capitalism saves the day.  You could tell the same story today, but I'll be happy if you don't.

Godfrey is opposed at every point by the other daughter, Cornelia, that villain.
It's an entertaining film with a witty script, well performed, but isn't particularly extraordinary by the standards of the time.  The DVD release I watched presented so unrestored a print, crude and fuzzy in sound and picture that when I first watched it I was put off '30s cinema for several years.  I now realise that a good scrub and a more tender preparation for release might have let it show its merits - there's probably a pretty watchable film under all the noise.

P.S. The rule seems to be that 30s films are better if they aren't in English.  Or perhaps the sample of purchasable 1930s films from abroad is smaller and weighted towards the excellent, whereas there's a great deal of 30s Americana to be had.  Alternatively, crappy sound is more of a problem when you aren't reading subtitles.  I think I prefer my first theory, and my suspicion that America, and its cinema, wasn't the best or the coolest until World War II, at which point the whole nation suddenly got its jiggy on.

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