At a glance, My Man Godfrey appears to be a typical formulaic production from Hollywood’s golden age. Headlined by two huge stars and fellow Oscar nominees for this film, William Powell and Carole Lombard, the film focuses on an upper-crust family in New York City, with all their trappings of success and opulent parties on full display. However, this is far from a standard wealthy family, and that’s where the film proves its originality.
Based on his novel and featuring a screenplay co-written by Eric Hatch, the film is a comedic social critique examining the class divide between the homeless and the super-rich. Instead of bland rich folks, the family members are so screwy and dysfunctional they seem like an early template for The Royal Tenenbaums. Their most deranged member is youngest daughter Irene (Lombard), so mentally fragile that she feigns illness when her nearly instantaneous mooning over their new butler Godfrey (Powell) isn’t immediately reciprocated.
For his part, Godfrey is discovered by Irene and her sister at the city dump, blissfully living amongst the homeless in spite of his secret identity as a fallen elite. With his new position as their butler, he sets about rebuilding his own life within society, while also taking surreptitious steps to help the standing of his new benefactors. The film asks us to determine who actually leads the more fulfilling life: the content and hard-working homeless man or the hapless and lazy rich folk, and although it is consistently hilarious due to the family’s hare-brained antics, it’s also surprisingly rewarding as an insightful social commentary that is just as relevant today as during its original release.
William Powell is superb as Godfrey, offering a wise but world-weary take on the pauper with elite experience. Lombard is amusing as the flighty younger daughter of the house, and yet I never bought into the mutual attraction of the two lead characters. A far better pairing would have been the witty older daughter played by Gail Patrick, as she was more than a match for the clever Godfrey and generated far more sparks during their brief interactions. Gregory La Cava directs with finesse throughout, marshalling the considerable talents of his cast through the story of the shifting fortunes of Godfrey and the family.
The film has been restored by its original studio Universal Pictures for this release from 4K scans of the 35mm nitrate original camera negative as well as a composite safety fine-grain. Although the final results show a great amount of film grain inherent in films of the era, the Blu-ray image quality is completely pristine with no noticeable defects at any point. The monaural soundtrack exhibits moderate hiss throughout, but no noticeable dropouts or crackle.
The most surprising bonus feature is a brief series of outtakes from the film’s production, a standard feature on modern films but rarely seen from this era. The stars prove to be as amusingly foul-mouthed as their modern counterparts, with Lombard in particular swearing like a sailor whenever she flubs a line. The best bonus feature is also surprising, a full hour-long presentation of Lux Radio Theatre’s radio adaptation of the film from 1938 starring Powell and Lombard as well as a promising young actor named David Niven, who coincidentally went on to star as Godfrey in a 1957 remake of the film.
The rest of the bonus features are recommended for film studies students only, with dry analysis of the film by one critic and La Cava’s career by another, as well as historical newsreels depicting the massive class divides present in the wake of the Great Depression. The features are well made and well intentioned, but don’t add much enjoyment to the overall experience of this buoyant film.
Special mention is due for Criterion’s classy commissioned illustrations and design for this release by the cartoonist Seth, one of my favorite artists and a perfect match for the material due to his fondness for this bygone era. Aside from the cover, Seth also has pieces on the disc, the inner tray liner, and even the disc onscreen menu, as well as a lovely foldout crowd piece and portraits of poor and rich Godfrey on the booklet. Criterion’s extra care with the Blu-ray’s presentation further demonstrates their commitment to drawing attention to this delightful release.