Street Date 9/18/18;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Stars William Powell, Carole Lombard, Gail Patrick, Alice Brady, Eugene Pallette.
Of the three great ’30s screwball comedies that Criterion has released in bang-up Blu-ray fashion, It Happened One Night is at least partly grounded in the Depression, The Awful Truth not much at all and My Man Godfrey most of all, which is one reason why Godfrey’s 1957 remake never had a chance. It takes a certain kind of time and place (to say nothing of a mind) to come up with the hook that launches the Godfrey original: Rival socialite sisters who begin their days with breakfast in bed comb a New York dump to find a “Forgotten Man” (see also Joan Blondell in Gold Diggers of 1933 for an even more famous screen reference). This way, they accrue enough points to win a scavenger hunt that’s centerpiece of a mucky-mucky society bash packed with tuxes and pearls.
The certain kind of mind we’re talking about belonged to director Gregory La Cava, who apparently also dominated a script credited to Eric Hatch (who wrote the source story) and A Night at the Opera’s Morrie Riskind. Profusely admired by both W.C. Fields and (after Godfrey gave her the best role offer career) co-lead Carole Lombard, La Cava had severe problems with the sauce that truncated and then ended his career not long after World War II. But at his best (as here and in the following year’s also superb Stage Door), he could somehow fashion a movie that seemed both structured and the product of a “let’s just wing it” sensibility. With Godfrey’s light-touch treatment of a serious underlying subject and a cast of characters that “loopy” doesn’t even begin to describe, there are about a dozen ways this history-book classic could have gone of the rails, and yet it doesn’t.
I’m not as up on La Cava as much as I should be because there are titles even from his relatively limited outfit that I haven’t seen (though I’m fond of 1940’s Primrose Path and enjoyed my fairly rare copy of the 1935 drama Private Worlds). Fortunately, La Cava was the kind of filmmaker who’s directly on the wavelength wheelhouse of Criterion-interviewed Gary Giddins; other bonuses (and they are) include Farran Smith Nehme liner notes, and film critic Nick Pinkerton apparently just ignoring a camera that blatantly says, “enthrall me” planted on his face; he delivers what looks like an effortlessly off-the-cuff analysis of La Cava’s career history that can’t be.
As Giddins points out, most of the cast members do what they had done or would do in other movies — only better. William Powell (in the title role and despite of his literal dump of a domicile) is urbane; Lombard sister Gail Patrick is catty and presumably irredeemable; mother Alice Brady is dizzy enough to make some of Billie Burke’s screen characters look like Madame Curie; and exhausted father Eugene Pallette barks in that unmistaken voice-of-gravel that he always had. Of course, there’s also Mischa Auer, who got one of the movie’s four Oscar nominations for acting.
Though Auer was later in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You, which is somewhat in the same family tree of movies, his is the one character here without many antecedents, even if he does serve the same not-quite-a-gigolo-but-close contribution Alexander D’Arcy makes to The Awful Truth. This is in large part due to the scene where Auer delivers what Nehme (a film historian with whom you can go to the bank — and also one whose writing is so much fun that you might also want to go with her to the Dairy Queen) calls “the single best gorilla impression in the history of American film.” This seems a safe bet, and I would be surprised if David Warner didn’t give Auer’s big scene some serious study before embarking upon, access the shores, 1966’s Morgan!
Powell pulls kind of a Jack Benny here (a germane reference to Lombard’s final co-star from To Be or Not To Be) by letting everyone else in the movie get the laughs, which only improves his standing in the picture. Hired on by Lombard as the family butler — none of his predecessors have lasted too long — Powell/Godfrey treats his tenure as a learning experience for himself while quietly dispensing wisdom that might just remind his employers that there’s another whole world out there, especially in the rubble. Lombard is as oblivious as anyone (with nuts-and-bolts Pallette the expected exception), but at least she’s sweet about it. She’s also as dizzy as her mother when the line between dizzy and batty can be a thin one, but Lombard finds a way to make the character appealing. A lot of people forget that Lombard was Powell’s pre-Gable (and friendly) ex-wife, and Powell lobbied La Cava to get her the role.
Speaking of Powell, Universal somehow got MGM to loan out the “Thin Man” of all franchises for this one-shot, contributing to a Universal project that has never to me felt like one (the unforgettably art deco-ish opening credits seem more as if they’re setting us up for 93 minutes from an RKO universe). Regardless, you can bet that the studio was happy to claim My Man Godfrey. In an achievement that stills impresses while simultaneously making you ask, “What the hell?” about a dozen times, it got Oscar nominations for direction, screenplay, Powell, Lombard, Brady (in support) and Auer (in support) —but not for best picture in one of those years when there were 10 available nominations to play with in the top category. Then again, Modern Times didn’t get nominated for best picture in 1936, either.
Thus, if your opinion of the Oscars (then, now or both) can be reduced to simple invective, included on this release is a smattering of something close (well, cursing) in a dupey-looking bonus extra that runs a minute and some change. It’s a series of blown takes, which is a rarity for Criterion, that confirms Lombard’s beguiling flair for foul-mouth. This is old news, but it’s a special treat to see Powell in standard debonair mode also coming forth with some goodies, one of which really cracks up featured player Alan Mowbray.