My Man Godfrey (1936), the screwball comedy with a conscience. Apart from being insanely hilarious, its commentary about social injustice is still as relevant today as it was in the Depression era.
In it, high-society lunatics are on a scavenger hunt. The task? Find a homeless man and take him to the Waldorf-Ritz Hotel. Cornelia Bullock (Gail Patrick) finds herself a ‘forgotten man’, Godfrey (William Powell) and offers him five dollars if he agrees to come with her. Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard), Cornelia’s sister and the ultimate airhead, doesn’t want her sister to win and immediately goes to talk to Godfrey, who agrees to go along with her. They arrive at the hotel and Godfrey addresses the crowd, condemning their behavior, after which Irene apologizes, offering him a job as her butler.
The next morning, everybody’s hungover and Godfrey has to deal with it – on his first day, no less. Mrs Bullock (Alice Brady) is mostly out of it, Cornelia throws him out of her room, and when he walks into Irene’s room, she doesn’t remember hiring him. She asks him, in her typical Carole Lombard loveliness, if he’s the new butler and what happened to Godfrey. She soon becomes smitten with him, and tells him he’s her ‘protege’. You know, like Carlo (Mischa Auer), mom’s protege. Godfrey is a bit skeptical about it, but he handles her and her ditziness with his usual charm and professionalism.
To be honest, I could have chosen any scene (the ‘Godfrey loves me, he put me in the shower!’ scene is one of the greatest in screwball history), but this is an especially delightful moment. What I love about it is that it establishes their relationship in an understated and charmingly funny way, without letting it go where you’d expect it to. Right away, this scene firmly places Godfrey as the voice of reason in this madhouse. The sane one. The one with a brain and integrity. The one socialites could learn a thing or two from. His assessment of Cornelia (‘Park Avenue brat’) later on is a particularly poignant moment and, again, still relevant today.
In a world of endless parties and ditzy millionaires, My Man Godfrey, like any Gregory La Cava picture (Stage Door (1937) being the other big one), makes a statement about society without ever losing its charm. It’s one of the ultimate screwball comedies and one that has stood the test of time beautifully. Crazy how La Cava never gets the recognition he deserves.