Beginning with the wonderful credit sequence that introduces the cast and crew on neon lights over art deco buildings, My Man Godfrey never makes a false move, never casts the wrong actor for their character. There’s not a set that doesn’t intimidate the viewer, either with the horror of slum life, or the shallowness of high society trappings. Director Gregory La Cava even finds room for a few technically accomplished shots, like Godfrey’s initial ascent up those staircases to the rooms of the Bullock women, each resembling an ornate cage for an ornery tropical bird.
Well off socialite Irene Bullock finds the titular Godfrey in a squatter's town on the edge of a city dump. She finds he is willing to take part in her scavenger hunt, filling the bill of a “forgotten man”: someone down his luck, unemployed, homeless, and with real whiskers. Godfrey agrees to accompany Irene and be her “forgotten man” in part for the five dollar payday, but also for the opportunity to stand before New York high society and declare them all nitwits.
For his candor, Irene offers him a job as the family butler. Godfrey accepts the position outright, and when he shows up the next morning clean shaven and unflappable its clear he’s more interested in performing his new job than Irene’s advances.
We spend most of the remaining film in the Bullock’s fantastic home with entertaining rooms outfitted with pianos and two staircases (two staircases!) leading to the bedrooms on the upper floors. For all the exquisite gruffness from family patriarch Alexander Bullock (played by Eugene Pallet, every word a strained, burly, nicotine croak) the women of the household are kept in an arrested development. Supposedly everyone in the cast was supposed to be around the teen-age, but casting the older actors add a further indictment on the upper class and how great privilege prevents a person from maturing. Ditzy Irene and bitchy Cornelia bicker like twelve year olds. Their mother acts all of fifteen, boarding a young protege Carlo while he tries to compose his masterpiece. Mischa Auer’s Carlo is a character for the ages, at once affecting the tortured artiste who always has room for seconds. Its a shame that performances like these have only brief shelf lives in the cultural consciousness; I’d love to be able to quote “alright, but my heart won’t be in it” at parties, but alas.
The humor of the film largely comes from placing the cynical, guarded Godfrey in the midst of the Bullocks, each of whom operates with a clarity of purpose visible to the audience and the other characters. Their simplistic motivations are easily parried by Godfrey in his attempts to refine his skills as a butler.
If there’s a flaw in the film to modern audiences, it may be the lack of any female character that’s sane or not blindly smitten with Godfrey. However, this is redeemed by the quality of the acting and the natural rapport the actors have with each other. By 1936, Carol Lombard (who’s not in the film as much as her billing would lead you to believe) and William Powell were divorced twice as long as their marriage lasted, but there’s still a palpable affection shared between them.
In a moment of candor, Godfrey states that its a want of a job that makes a man “forgotten”. It’s the ultimate message of the film. For all their sins and hubris, the Bullocks are never made to give charity to those disadvantaged. They are never made to endure an hour of poverty despite wasting a fortune over the film’s running time. All Godfrey would ask of them is a bit of respect for the downtrodden. His fellow slummates are revealed to be able bodied men of morals, some accepting their poverty rather than inflicting it on others. Given a chance, they turn productive once again.
Almost a decade into the great depression, and three years into the first term of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the moral underpinnings of the New Deal couldn’t have been expressed more gracefully.