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Screwball/Great Depression Denial Syndrome: My Man Godfrey (Criterion Collection)

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By Tony Williams.

Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey (1936) is admittedly one of the best screwball comedies of the 1930s that provided witty dialogue, entertainment, and “acceptable” references to the Great Depression in the limited manner Hollywood allowed at this time. Far removed from the more gritty Warner Bros’ type of productions such as William Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road (1934) and Heroes for Sale (1934), the latter containing the appearance of Carbondale, IL on a map during the latter part of the film (which must be a first for any Hollywood film!) as well as that unforgettable number “My Forgotten Man” at the end of Mervyn Le Roy’s Gold Diggers of 1933, Criterion has again added another well-known classic to their digitally restored repertoire. Despite what has been written about cinematic representations of the Great Depression, it cannot be denied that the vast majority were sanitized in contrast to the grim reality most Americans faced at the time. Many films displayed complex tensions between unavoidable recognitions and ideological denials within the entertainment framework of Hollywood studios. FDR promised an end to the Depression but that did not really happen until December 7, 1941 when there was enough work provided on the battlefield and manufacturing industries to keep most Americans working for a generation or so.

Despite the climactic musical number “My Forgotten Man” where censorship would attempt to prevent recognition of the obvious fact that Joan Blondell is a streetwalker providing sustenance for her veteran lover who has suffered humiliating downward mobility from formerly wanted WWI hero to post-war unwanted bum, contemporary Hollywood could never fully come to terms with a hideous social reality outside its picture palaces. Instead, it would apply temporarily soothing entertainment band aids to those who could at least “spare a dime” inside the palatial mansions of “mindless entertainment.” If Albert Camus’s Caligula decided that irrational actions were the only alternative to an irrational universe, Hollywood supplied bizarre behavior and zany characters from the upper classes whom audiences could see less as the callous, non-caring, Fascist sympathizers they mostly were in real-life but as “crazy people” lacking control of their own lives in the same way as their unfortunate lower class counterparts were. Conscious or not, this was a strategy of providing excessive modes of ideologically conditioned entertainment disavowing bleaker implications of the world outside. It was only later that Robert Aldrich’s neglected but important Depression era drama The Grissom Gang (1971) would attempt to tear away the veil behind a ruthless façade where Wesley’s Addy’s callous capitalist father would not welcome the involvement of his daughter with a figure from the downwardly mobile underclass. As in the compromised 1948 British film version, there would be No Orchids for Miss Blandish as in the William Faulkner original Sanctuary (1931), the first film adaptation (The Story of Temple Drake, 1933) featuring Jack LaRue as “Trigger” who would later play Slim Grissom in the 1948 film version of James Hadley Chase’s re-working of the Faulkner original in No Orchids for Miss Blandish. Seeing these films as premature ideological embodiments of those class system soap operas Upstairs/Downstairs (1971-1975) and Downton Abbey (2011-2015), where audiences are encouraged to identify and sympathize with their “betters” like servants downstairs, encourages skepticism when one also notes their popularity during periods of economic decline and unemployment.

Man 02Moving from cynicism to other areas of critical perception, one can acclaim such films as accomplished works both in acting and direction as one can do similarly when viewing those Nazi-era entertainments starring Zarah Leander (who made two films with Douglas Sirk) and Marika Rokk (both stars later revealed to be Soviet agents) if one ignores the relevant historical contexts which generated them. Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (remade by UFA in 1936 under the title “Lucky Kids”) and Carole Lombard and John Barrymore in Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century (both released in 1934) provide differing examples of zaniness, one with a typical Hollywood romantic ending where the upper-class princess marries her working class “Joe” and the other “squaring the circle” by re-enacting an equally bizarre but realistic, continual “battle of the sexes.”

My Man Godfrey provides a different variant of this brew in which the title character who, if not emerging from a log cabin to the White House, begins that cherished American ideological upward mobility trajectory from bum to butler. Like his 1948 British counterpart Michael Wilding in Herbert Wilcox’s treacly Spring in Park Lane (1948), William Powell’s Godfrey is finally revealed to be an upper-class Harvard educated prince in disguise. Since Powell acts debonair in his bum outfit as he will later do when shaved and tuxedoed in his new role, it is not accidental for the rich family to accept someone who should still be kept in his place. Educated and rich people who survived with their cultured personalities still intact would find themselves as despised as their lower-class counterparts rejected from this New Depression Order, as cultured and professional Jews found themselves in a different type of overseas New World Order. The situation of once upwardly mobile victims of post-2008 repossessions are also similarly demonized as their unfortunate predecessors were in the 1930s.

Playing a Depression era version of that “other” character in the old Beauty and the Beast fable, Godfrey enters the realm of an emotionally dysfunctional rich family who would naturally regard any unemployed person as a “beast”. He restores finances and mental stability to them unlike Terence Stamp’s enigmatic character in Pasolini’s Teorema (1968) who turns his hosts from a bourgeois functioning family unit into fragmented, dysfunctional isolates, who intuitively react in different ways to the real chaos that surrounds their everyday existence which they formally denied. Had Pasolini ever seen My Man Godfrey?

Willingly appropriated as a “Forgotten Man” trophy in what is really a callous upper-class version of an Easter egg hunt, downwardly mobile “Boston Brahmin” Godfrey enters the lives of this deranged family and rather than justifiably murdering them, as any later serial killer would do, restores them to their better natures. He turns the city dump of his former “Hooverville” into a snazzy nightclub with former “forgotten man” companion now risen to the status of a grateful doorman with respectful demeanor (eerily anticipating Gordon Jackson’s Mr. Hudson from Upstairs Downstairs), towards his new master, no longer fellow bum. “Beauty” Irene (Lombard) then engineers a marriage with her reluctant “Beast” who to the relief of the establishment, let alone studio executives, is now understood as really being “one of us”, as Margaret Thatcher would later say.

Man 03The film is an accomplished work with La Cava including uncredited screenplay contributions by Morrie Ryskind and original author Eric Hatch. A former animator, La Cava was known for his spontaneous additions to the screenplay on set, a fact that did not endear him to business-minded studio executives. The film was remade in 1956 with June Allyson (the devoted Eisenhower era docile cinematic wife) and David Niven taking over from distinguished West German actor O.W. Fischer (1915-2004) who reportedly lost his memory during filming but made a quick recovery to star opposite and direct Anouk Aimee after safely returning home from Hollywood the following year. If only the remake had been planned a decade later with Pasolini invited to Hollywood to direct?

DVD supplements feature jazz and film critic Gary Giddins commenting on La Cava and the film within its 1930s context, a new interview with Nick Pinkerton on the director, well-known outtakes, and the usual radio adaptation. The 1938 60-minute Lux Radio Theatre production reunites Powell, Lombard, Gail Patrick, and Auer in their original roles with David Niven now performing the Alan Mowbray part. Overall, it is a good abbreviation with Powell and Lombard fully at home with the different demands of radio with expert dialogue renditions. On this occasion, Criterion supplies stills from the original broadcast showing Cecil B. DeMille, Powell, Lombard, and Patrick at different points of the production. DeMille again tediously provides the introduction and conducts interviews in his usual pompous manner, one still showing that he actually wore his famous studio set directing jodhpurs before the microphone. He actually confesses that he dropped Lombard from what would have been her first sound film preferring instead to retain an actress who later quit the film to become the star’s business manager. In retrospect, this was no loss, since Lombard escaped being directed by this lesser talent to develop her own screen persona. An essay by usual Criterion contributor journalist and blogger Farran Smith Nehme completes the supplementary package

However, brief newsreels depicting Depression class divides provide an ominous background to what was exactly happening outside the artificially constructed world of Hollywood entertainment in a period that necessitates more critical scrutiny concerning such inter-relationships. The inclusion of My Man Godfrey is a worthy enough addition to this collection, but at the same time there are other genuinely “lost titles” that should be included rather than the more popular but less challenging ones such as Bulldog Drummond’s Bride (1939), the already over-familiar Some Like it Hot (1959), Sisters (1972), Shampoo (1975), Blood Simple (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), The Princess Bride (1987), and The Virgin Suicides (1999). These more popular titles should take second place to urgently needed reconstructions and releases of foreign films long unavailable, such as those by Miklos Jancso (1921-2014) whose monumental Red Psalm (1972) I finally saw in a subtitled but hideous cropped, washed Korean DVD. Employing his characteristic long takes and visually inspiring techniques also seen in his earlier works such as My Way Home (1965), The Round-Up (1966), The Red and the White (1967), and Silence and Cry (1968), these works, in addition to his later ones, need rediscovery, reissue, and re-circulation to audiences who have never seen them. This preference is not mean to disparage the more audience-friendly films listed above but to campaign for the release of more challenging films that desperately need to be seen again in an era of cinematic drought. If not Criterion, then perhaps the field is open for Kino-Lorber and Olive?

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is also a Contributing Editor to Film International.

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