Legend has it that Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey (1936) — perhaps the most perfect of all screwball comedies — was made in an atmosphere more like a party than a movie shoot. We’re told that the cast and crew would spend most of the day drinking and playing around, only turning their attention to the task at hand as a last resort. That’s probably apocryphal — certainly, it’s exaggerated — but it does capture the feel of the film. (And there’s a good chance that at least Mischa Auer’s gorilla impression was improvised.) It’s as glistening as a silver lame evening gown and as effervescent as a glass of good champagne — and with a similar same kick. You often hear about movies looking like the cast was having a good time — something that doesn’t necessarily translate into the audience having a good time. But here, it does both. The results have that little touch of magic where you feel like you’re a part of that good time, too. The film seems to invite you to the party, not just observe it, and that makes all the difference in the world.
Of course, when your cast includes Carole Lombard, William Powell, Eugene Pallette, Alice Brady, Gail Patrick, Jean Dixon (no, not the psychic) and Auer, you’ve got a head start. At the same time, I can name you a lot of movies with casts that good that don’t get anywhere near this picture. From start (with one of the best and most memorable title sequences ever) to final fade-out, there’s not really a false move in the entire movie — something else that argues against the legend of how it was made. Executive producer Charles R. Rogers has much to answer for with his general handling of “New Universal” (this was his first film as the head of production when Universal Pictures was taken over by the Standard Capital Corporation), but here he came up with a winner — if only by not interfering with producer-director Gregory La Cava.
As screwball comedies are concerned, My Man Godfrey is unusual in that it doesn’t just exist outside the Depression, but tackles the subject head-on. The usual screwball comedy tended to eschew any relationship with the real world, but this one grounds its high-society fun in something at least related to reality. In fact, the film’s story exists because a society “scavenger hunt” (where all the money that’s left over goes to charity, except there’s never any money left over) descends on the city dump in search of a “forgotten man.” The “forgotten man” in this case is Godfrey Parks (Powell), who is living there in a shack next to other similiarly domiciled members of the unemployed. Although offended by the whole idea of being “collected” — to the extent that he pushes snobby Cornelia Bullock (Gail Patrick) into a pile of ashes — Godfrey ends up volunteering his “forgotten man” status to help Cornelia’s ditzy sister, Irene (Lombard), beat her bitchy sibling. It’s not long before Irene has taken on Godfrey for her protégé and hired him as the family’s new butler.
What follows in the cordially demented household is sheer comedic bliss. Mrs. Bullock (Alice Brady) is both scatter-brained and something of a tippler. Not to be outdone, she has her own protégé, Carlo (Auer), a supposed composer and definite leech. Mr. Bullock (the always wonderful Eugene Pallette) tries to ignore his family’s expensive eccentricities, while quietly battling to keep their oblivious heads above water. Cornelia and Irene we’ve already met, leaving only the delightfully acid-tongued housekeeper and cook Molly (Jean Dixon). It’s all fresh and funny — and its glistening black and white images sparkle just as much as its players and script. Movies don’t get much better than this — and neither did the luminous Carole Lombard. She manages to be funny, strangely innocent and sexy all at the same time.