My Man Godfrey

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My Man Godfrey

Romance, Comedy | 94 mins | Released: 1936
Director: Gregory La Cava
Starring: William Powell, Carole Lombard, Alice Brady, Gail Patrick, Jean Dixon, Alan Mowbray, Mischa Auer
Our Rating: 6
Black & White

During the Great Depression, Godfrey “Smith” Parke (William Powell) is living alongside other men down on their luck at the city dump. One night, spoiled socialite Cornelia Bullock (Gail Patrick) offers him five dollars ($83 in 2013) to be her “forgotten man” for a scavenger hunt. Annoyed, he advances on her, causing her to retreat and fall on a pile of ashes. She leaves in a fury, much to the glee of her younger sister, Irene (Carole Lombard). After talking with her, Godfrey finds her to be kind, if a bit scatter-brained. He offers to go with Irene to help her beat Cornelia.

In the ballroom of the Waldorf-Ritz Hotel, Irene’s long-suffering businessman father, Alexander Bullock (Eugene Pallette), waits resignedly as his ditsy wife, Angelica (Alice Brady), and her mooching “protégé” Carlo (Mischa Auer) play the frivolous game. Godfrey arrives and is “authenticated” by the scavenger hunt judge as a “forgotten man”. He then addresses the idle rich, expressing his contempt for their antics. Irene is apologetic and offers him a job as the family butler, which he gratefully accepts.

See Mischa Auer in “And Then There Were None” on MovieZoot here

The next morning, Godfrey is shown what to do by the sardonic, wise-cracking maid, Molly (Jean Dixon), the only servant who has been able to put up with the antics of the family. She warns him that he is just the latest in a long line of butlers. Only slightly daunted, he proves to be surprisingly competent, although Cornelia still holds a sizable grudge. On the other hand, Irene considers Godfrey to be her protégé, and is thrilled by his success.

A complication arises when a guest, Tommy Gray (Alan Mowbray), greets Godfrey familiarly as an old friend. Godfrey quickly ad-libs that he was Tommy’s valet at school. Tommy plays along, mentioning Godfrey’s non-existent wife and five children. Dismayed, Irene impulsively announces her engagement to the surprised Charlie Van Rumple (Grady Sutton), but she soon breaks down in tears and flees after being politely congratulated by Godfrey.

Over lunch the next day, Tommy is curious to know what one of the elite “Parkes of Boston” is doing as a servant. Godfrey explains that a broken love affair had left him considering suicide, but the optimistic, undaunted attitude of the men living at the dump rekindled his spirit.

Meanwhile, when everything she does to make Godfrey’s life miserable fails, Cornelia sneaks into his room and plants her pearl necklace under his mattress. She then calls the police to report her “missing” jewelry. To Cornelia’s surprise, the pearls do not turn up, even when she suggests they check Godfrey’s bed. Mr. Bullock realizes his daughter has orchestrated the whole thing and sees the policemen out.

The Bullocks then send their daughters off to Europe to get Irene away from Godfrey. When they return, Cornelia implies that she intends to seduce Godfrey. Worried, Irene stages a fainting spell and falls into Godfrey’s arms. He carries her to her bed, but while searching for smelling salts, he realizes she’s faking when he sees her (in a mirror) sit up briefly. In revenge, he puts her in the shower and turns on the cold water full blast. Far from quenching her attraction, this merely confirms her hopes: “Oh Godfrey, now I know you love me…You do or you wouldn’t have lost your temper.”

When confronted by the rest of the family, Godfrey quits. But Mr. Bullock has more pressing concerns. He first has a private “little chat” with Carlo, throwing the freeloader out through a side window. He then announces that his business is in dire financial straits and that he might even be facing criminal charges. Godfrey interrupts with unexpected good news: realizing Mr. Bullock’s problems, Godfrey had sold short, using money raised by pawning Cornelia’s necklace and then buying up the stock that Bullock had sold. He gives the endorsed stock certificates to the stunned Mr. Bullock, thus saving the family from financial ruin. He also returns the necklace to a humbled Cornelia, who apologizes for her attempt to frame him. Afterwards, Godfrey takes his leave.

With the rest of his stock profits and reluctant business partner Tommy Gray’s backing, Godfrey has built a fashionable nightclub at the dump called “The Dump”, “…giving food and shelter to fifty people in the winter, and giving them employment in the summer.” Godfrey tells Tommy he quit being the Bullocks’ butler because “he felt that foolish feeling coming along again.” Later on, though, Irene tracks him down and bulldozes him into marriage and the movie ends with her saying, “Stand still, Godfrey, it’ll all be over in a minute.”

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Movie Notes:

My Man Godfrey is a 1936 American comedy-drama film directed by Gregory La Cava. The screenplay was written by Morrie Ryskind, with uncredited contributions by La Cava, based on 1101 Park Avenue, a short novel by Eric Hatch. The story concerns a socialite who hires a derelict to be her family’s butler, only to fall in love with him, much to his dismay. The film stars William Powell and Carole Lombard. Powell and Lombard were divorced years earlier, but were good friends.

The film was remade in 1957 with June Allyson and David Niven in the starring roles. In 1999, the original version of My Man Godfrey was deemed “culturally significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

My Man Godfrey was in production from April 15 to May 27, 1936, and then had retakes in early June of the year. Its estimated budget was $656,000.

My Man Godfrey premiered on September 6 1936, and was released in the United States on the 17th of September. It was a runaway hit and earned huge profits for the studio.

The studio’s original choice to play Irene, the part eventually played by Carole Lombard, was Constance Bennett, and Miriam Hopkins was also considered, but the director, Gregory La Cava, would only agree to Bennett if Universal borrowed William Powell from MGM. Powell, for his part, would only take the role if Carole Lombard played Irene. Powell and Lombard had divorced three years earlier.

La Cava, a former animator and freelancer for most of his film career, held studio executives in contempt, and was known to be a bit eccentric. When he and Powell hit a snag over a disagreement about how Godfrey should be portrayed, they settled things over a bottle of Scotch. The next morning, La Cava showed up for shooting with a headache, but Powell didn’t appear. Instead, the actor sent a telegram stating: “WE MAY HAVE FOUND GODFREY LAST NIGHT BUT WE LOST POWELL. SEE YOU TOMORROW.”

Eric S. Hatch wrote the screenplay, assisted by Morrie Ryskind.

Due to insurance considerations a stand-in stuntman (Chick Collins) was used when Godfrey carried Irene over his shoulder up the stairs to her bedroom.

When tensions hit a high point on the set, Lombard had a habit of inserting four letter words into her dialogue, often to the great amusement of the cast. This made shooting somewhat difficult, but clips of her cursing in her dialogue and messing up her lines can still be seen in blooper reels.

My Man Godfrey was nominated for six Academy Awards:

Best Director – Gregory La Cava;
Best Actor – William Powell;
Best Actress – Carole Lombard;
Best Writing, Screenplay – Eric Hatch and Morrie Ryskind;
Best Supporting Actor – Mischa Auer;
Best Supporting Actress – Alice Brady

My Man Godfrey was the first movie to be nominated in all four acting categories, in the first year that supporting categories were introduced. It’s also the only film in Oscar history to receive a nomination in all four acting categories and not be nominated for Best Picture, and was the only film to be nominated in these six categories and not receive an award until 2013, when American Hustle did the same thing.

In 1999, the film was deemed “culturally significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. In 2000, the film was ranked #44 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 funniest comedies, and Premiere magazine voted it one of “The 50 Greatest Comedies Of All Time” in 2006. It is one of the few movies that hold 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

William Powell suggested his ex-wife Carole Lombard for the leading role with the explanation that his real life romance with Lombard had been much the same as it was for the characters of Godfrey and Irene.

Carole Lombard had a habit of ad-libbing by inserting swear words into the dialogue, which necessitated the re-shooting of several scenes.

This is the only movie to ever get Oscar nominations for writing, directing and all four acting awards without being nominated for Best Picture. It was also the only movie to ever get those six nominations without winning in any of the categories all until American Hustle (2013).

When William Powell and director Gregory La Cava had a disagreement over how Godfrey should be played, they talked it out over a bottle of Scotch in Powell’s dressing room. The next day, LaCava returned to the movie set with a major headache, but Powell was not there. The director received a telegram from his star: “WE MAY HAVE FOUND GODFREY LAST NIGHT BUT WE LOST POWELL. SEE YOU TOMORROW.”

Although stars William Powell and Carole Lombard had been divorced for three years by the time they made this, when offered the part Powell declared that the only actress right for the part of Irene was Lombard.

A stand-in (Chick Collins) was used when William Powell carries Carole Lombard over his shoulder up the stairs to her bedroom.

When Irene, portrayed by Carole Lombard, and Molly, portrayed by Jean Dixon, are sobbing in the kitchen, Godfrey, portrayed by William Powell, comes in, tipsy after his drinking bout with Tommy, portrayed by Alan Mowbray. The lines of the song he sings are “for tomorrow may bring sorrow/ So tonight let’s all be gay./ Tell the story of the glory”. These lines come from “Drink a Highball”, a song of Harvard’s Ivy League rival, University of Pennsylvania. The lines continue “of Pennsylvania.” The writers likely cut it off to avoid the obvious contradiction of a Harvard man singing a Penn song, no matter how appropriate to his imbibing.

The film makes reference to the Dionne Quintuplets, who were born just months before this was filmed, when Mrs. Bullock says, “Why shouldn’t Godfrey have five children? If a woman in Canada can have five children, why can’t Godfrey?” It was common, at the time, to have the Quintuplets referenced in films, because they were the first multiple birth, past triplets, to all be born alive. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the girls are still the largest multiple birth recognized by them, because they only recognize babies conceived naturally.

In production during the most volatile period in Universal’s long history. The studio was reeling from the recent costly flop, Sutter’s Gold (1936) and was banking heavily on the success of Show Boat (1936), which would experience production delays and cost Carl Laemmle his studio. Despite the relatively economical cost of Godfrey (under $700,000) it was released too late to benefit Laemmle and the new owners were able to capitalize on both it and Show Boat’s revenues to finance a much cheaper and scaled back 1937 production roster. The “new” Universal wouldn’t produce another true A-list film until 1939 (with The Son of Frankenstein (1939) and Destry Rides Again (1939)) and would only survive by the singular popularity of its one major star, Deanna Durbin until the arrival of Abbott and Costello in 1941.

The Bullock mansion is located at 1101 Park Avenue, Manhattan, New York City, New York. 1101 Park Avenue is at East 89 Street, just behind the famed Museum Mile section of Fifth Avenue, just a few blocks north and east of the Metropolitan Museum of Art at East 82 Street and Fifth Avenue.

Mischa Auer’s character Carlo repeatedly sings “Ochi Chornya” in this movie. Nine years later in And Then There Were None (1945) his character Prince Nikita Starloff begins playing the first few notes of “Ochi Chornya” on the piano before meeting his demise.

Based on the book ‘1101 Park Avenue’ by Eric Hatch.

In 2002 the film was remastered and restored and effectively colorized for the first time.

Was selected for preservation by the national film registry in 1999, being referred to as culturally significant by the United States Library of Congress.

The hotel where the charity scavenger hunt is being staged is the “Waldorf Ritz Hotel,” which did not exist. However, one of the best hotels in New York City in 1936 was the Waldorf Astoria, and another one of the best hotels in New York City at that time was the first Ritz-Carlton Hotel in the U.S., which was built in New York City in 1917. The “Waldorf-Ritz” was an amalgamation of those two iconic brands.

About one hour into the film, Carlo starts reading a poem: “‘Courage!’ he said, and pointed toward the land,’This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon.'” These words are from the opening lines of the poem “The Lotus-Eaters” by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

When “My Man Godfrey” was adapted and broadcast as an episode of the Lux Radio Theater on May 9, 1938, David Niven portrayed Tommy Gray. Niven would later star in the remake, My Man Godfrey (1957).

Jane Wyman has an uncredited role. She can be seen standing at the back of the crowd in the Waldorf Ritz Hotel as Godfrey makes his speech condemning them all as “nitwits”.

Premiere voted this movie as one of “The 50 Greatest Comedies Of All Time” in 2006.

The Character of Irene Bullock is in her late teens; ‘Carole Lombard (I)’ was 27/28 at the time of production.

At the beginning of the film, and sporadically throughout, Godfrey, portrayed by William Powell, is called “Duke” by his friend Mike, and by other hobo town men at the city dump, but he is never called Duke by anyone else off of “the dump” property.

The film’s copyright appeared at the beginning of the film, under the “production credit,” which was “A Gregory La Cava Production.” This was unusual in two ways, first that the copyright appeared at the beginning of the film, instead of at the end, and second that it was under the director’s name in small print, and not under the production company’s name in small print.

“Academy Award Theater” broadcast a 30 minute radio adaptation of the movie on October 2, 1946 with William Powell reprising his film role.

Set around and filmed during the Great Depression.

Eddie Kane is in studio records as a cast member, but he was not seen in the movie.