In many ways, Merrily We Live (1938) is the forgotten cousin of My Man Godfrey (1936). They are strikingly similar, plot-wise and character-wise, and yet, only one of them is a classic.
In Merrily We Live, Mrs Kilbourne (Billie Burke in her only Oscar-nominated performance) has a habit of hiring ‘tramps’ as servants, much to the annoyance of the rest of the family, Mr Kilbourne (Clarence Kolb), their children Jerry (Constance Bennett), Marion (Bonita Granvile), Kane (Tom Brown), not to mention Grosvenor (Alan Mowbray), the butler who threatens to quit every day. One day, when Rawlins (Brian Aherne) arrives at the Kilbourne residence to use their phone, Mrs Kilbourne mistakes him for a tramp and hires him as a chauffeur.
Norman Z. McLeon’s Merrily We Live is a delight and the fact that it’s virtually unknown these days is an outrage. It’s as funny and wacky as the best of them, with Billie Burke playing one of the most spendidly ditzy characters ever. She’s an absolute riot as the slightly insane matriarch, who can never keep track of anything. Brian Aherne’s Rawlins, however, is the main character, and it’s such an understated, effortlessly funny and charming performance. His romance with Jerry is one of the film’s highlights and it’s absolutely lovely. I love how adorable Merrily We Live is. Maybe that’s doing it a disservice, because it is also absolutely hilarious, but you don’t get many movies as endlessly delightful as this. And as I said, it’s ridiculous how overlooked it is.
My Man Godfrey, on the other hand, is a classic and everybody loves it. Socialite and drama queen Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) hires ‘forgotten man’ Godfrey (William Powell) as a butler, after she brings him with her to a high society scavenger hunt. Soon after, she falls in love with him (who wouldn’t?) and things get even crazier.
Gregory LaCava’s My Man Godfrey is undoubtedly one of the most famous and beloved screwball comedies of all time. There’s nothing not to love about it. William Powell’s performance is a work of art, as is Carole Lombard’s. Gail Patrick’s Cornelia is the ultimate screwball comedy villain (is that even possible?) and Mischa Auer’s Carlo is wonderfully funny as the film’s second craziest character (after Irene). The social commentary is not to be overlooked, either, with Godfrey delivering a ‘knock ‘em dead’ speech to Cornelia about what a spoiled brat she is. I think that’s one of the things that makes this film so great. It’s a screwball with a conscience, which is saying quite something about a film as zany as this.
So why have these two films gone down such drastically different paths, as far as their place in movie history goes? Are they too similar? Perhaps. Perhaps we only need one of them, and My Man Godfrey is the better of the two. It’s curious to see how these things happen. I mean, they were both extremely successful when they came out, receiving 5 and 6 Oscar nominations (Merrily and Godfrey, respectfully), so it’s a bit of a mystery why one of them is so unknown. I, for one, would love to see Merrily We Live on every ‘top 20 screwballs’ list. I think it deserves it. And you know how I like to root for the underdog.