My Man Godfrey
One of the first and still among the best of the '30s screwball comedies, My Man Godfrey serves up absurdist romance and light social commentary in a fizzy mix that benefits from director Gregory La Cava's willingness to indulge improvisation, a trait he acquired from friend and frequent collaborator W.C. Fields. William Powell stars as a willful vagrant who gains employment when dizzy New York socialite Carole Lombard finds him at a riverside trash pile and offers him a job as her family's butler. A shave and shower later, Powell is back to playing the suave gentleman he exemplified throughout his career, but with a key note of humility; meanwhile, Lombard preens, pouts, and plots to win her man's heart and prevent him from being browbeaten by her mean-spirited sister (Gail Patrick). My Man Godfrey is largely assembled from asides and bits of throwaway business, the most amusing coming from Mischa Auer as an Italian freeloader who loafs around the family mansion, eating and feigning a faint whenever the subject turns to money. The film as a whole dances around the issue of money, as well, implying merely that it's easy to get and easy to lose. La Cava is more interested in the idea of responsibility, which he explores by applying the concept of "the forgotten man"a Depression-era euphemism for the down-and-out, particularly those who fought in WWIto the servants, and even to the casual acquaintances that self-absorbed swells take for granted. The My Man Godfrey DVD includes a commentary by historian Bob Gilpin, who argues convincingly for the film as a realization of the ideals of Rooseveltian social policy. The disc also features the Lux Radio theater adaptation (which reproduces the plot but lacks the off-the-cuff interplay) and a blooper reel which proves that in any era, it's still funny to hear glamorous people flub their lines and shout, "Goddamn!" But the DVD's most pertinent bonuses are the two segments from WPA-produced shorts: one about the culture of "the forgotten man," and one discussing how the wealthy partied in private while people were starving in the streets. La Cava's film is more a broad social satire than an incisive political critique, but these two documentary fragments help place Godfrey in a historical context, clarifying its appeal to a 1936 audience. The movie itself offers a fantasy version of the prosperity that was then "just around the corner"; this DVD offers a map of the corner it was supposedly around.