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Monday, February 03, 2020

Going Against Godfrey Grain

He Should Have Chosen Cordelia

I’ll be heretical and say flat out that William Powell as Godfrey would have been better off with Cordelia Bullock, as played by Gail Patrick. I would not have wished Carole Lombard’s Irene even on gorilla man Carlo (Mischa Auer), though they are a better match for my money. Having so blasphemed a settled classic of screwball comedy, it remains to ask myself why the resistance to a story and its resolution that generations have embraced and continue to. Comedy for me, apart from Snub Pollard, Keystone Kops, or the ilk, is drama with humor elements. We are dealing with people and their problems which I will take on face value and regard seriously. It may not be fair to screwball ethos, but I expect characters, at least ones I am expected to identify with on any level, to act sensibly, and to me, it is not sensible for Powell as Godfrey to enter willingly into marriage with such a birdbrain as Lombard’s Irene. Willingly is an operative word, for it always seemed he was forced by circumstance, and her insistence, to speak vows against his better judgment. Godfrey is an intelligent and educated man, he and Cordelia islands of acuity amidst chaos those surrounding them represent. Easy to forecast is Irene ending up like her mother, nattering and foolish, Godfrey’s marital outcome a mirror to Alexander Bullock’s (Eugene Pallette). In the Godfrey world I predict, he would drift toward infidelity with sister Cordelia, with whom it’s clear by a third act he has sympathy with and much more in common. As for Irene, opposites may attract, utter opposites less so. Godfrey and Irene as a sustaining couple after fade-out is not to be believed, and I reserve the right to believe or not in movie outcomes, even “screwball” ones.

The Cast Getting Direction from Gregory La Cava

Godfrey and the Woman I Would Rather He End Up With
I tend to invest fully in comedy situations, even, some say, to a point of over-analysis. We watched a Friends episode a few weeks ago where Joey fails an acting audition and I said it wasn’t right for him to be so humiliated, that it wasn’t funny, and that humor was undone where a character likeable as Joey is made such a fool of. Comedy is a most fragile of arts. If you don’t want me to take Godfrey’s situation seriously, then put him on a unicycle with a handlebar mustache and let trains chase him. Otherwise, I will judge his choices, or mistakes in choosing. The end of My Man Godfrey sees a good and sympathetic man (and never mind it’s one of my favorite actors) trapped in a ceremony he will regret, regrets even as it proceeds. Here’s the thing with Cordelia: She is scheming and guileful, “high-spirited” as Godfrey tactfully puts it. He realizes they were raised in similar circumstance (“There have been other spoiled children in the world. I happen to be one of them myself”). If Cordelia grew up entitled, so did Godfrey. For his greater age and experience, Godfrey knows that maturity is within Cordelia’s grasp. He acknowledges that she taught him humility and "the fallacy of false pride." Besides that, Cordelia is attracted to Godfrey, and he to her (my reading admittedly, but scenes tend to bear it out). I’d like to think that Cordelia, defused by Godfrey having saved the Bullock fortune, would acquire a “more constructive” attitude, the two headed for a happy ever-after. 

Lombard as performer was not at fault, as I’m told she was directed (by Gregory La Cava) to go full out madcap. Her Irene rides a horse into the Bullock mansion and parks it in the library, thankfully off-camera. Madcap that stops being funny becomes exhausting. Powell saves Godfrey. We could wonder how things would turn out if Melvyn Douglas or Robert Montgomery played his part. For how many films was casting the charm, or tip-over? More urgent: What OK films might have been classics had they been cast better? Back to Lombard on the horse: If a gag were more alarming than amusing where actually shown, is it less so when someone refers to it as a past event? Anecdotal account of Irene indoors and astride amuses me no more than its visual reality would. How will Bullard staff adequately clean rugs and tile once the animal is removed (after being there all night … Gads!). Pardon if I seem arbitrary. If My Man Godfrey weren’t such a fine picture, I’d not go so deep in the well with it. What confers greatness is often the contradictions within movies we love. Sometimes it’s hard to express even why we gravitate to them. I admit being that way about My Man Godfrey and at least a hundred others.

Does My Man Godfrey expose the “evil of capitalism”? At least one modern commentator says yes. The rich, we are told, are rightly ridiculed in screwball. It is said this calmed the proletariat. Was it also to quell threat of social revolution in the 30’s? I doubt the rich cared, since being rich will cushion a lot of hurt from being teased. Alexander Bullock knows his wealth is tenuous, that a family he wishes he’d never started is frittering assets away. It would have been hard, even in 1936, to resent or dislike Alexander Bullock. They say audiences were reassured by movie millionaires being invariably worse off than themselves, a given that money did not confer happiness, taught time and again by Hollywood. Godfrey is sympathetic because he fled the yoke of riches. Fact is, had he not come of aristocracy equal to the Bullocks, any inter-marriage would have been ill-advised. What 30’s heiress saw anything but grief for running off with her chauffeur? Godfrey reminds me of noble savage Tarzan turning out to be Viscount Greystoke so that proper English Jane could couple with him without stepping out of her class. Godfrey brings added benefit of being a Wall Street wizard capable of turning Bullock ruin into riches, his having gone to Harvard a story element planted early so we’d know he was worthy of elevated status. Godfrey having lived in a dump is little more than opportunity to see how a lower half lives, since a quick telegram to home in Boston or withdrawal from a trust account could put him back in chips at any point of the narrative. Godfrey calling scavenger hunters, including the Bullocks, a “bunch of empty-headed nitwits” may have been a sop to class-resenters in 1936, and now, but really, these are his people and it’s more than a little disingenuous for him to mock them so. Maybe Godfrey deserves to end up with Irene after all.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

If Powell had chosen Irene the public would have chosen not to choose the movie.

Grim Natwick owed his animation career to Gregory La Cava. They were living together when Grim returned from studying art in Europe. La Cava was running the Hearst animation studio. Grim went to work there. He was the only real artist in the crew.

Grim taught them. Grim taught everyone he came in contact with who was astute enough to realize what an asset he was (including me).

You present a fine case for Irene, though. Give you credit for that.

Anthony Slide in his book on film collectors writes most movie buffs don't think and are pretty stupid. See that truth borne out all over the web. You're the rare bird that ain't stupid and does think. Cheers.

9:04 AM  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

What a pleasure to see you solidly on the Gail Patrick/Cordelia train. I'm so with you. Years ago I even wrote a blog post largely focused on the proposition that Patrick's intriguing Cordelia has no trouble at all outshining Lombard's exhausting Irene. Here's a link:

I hadn't actually thought about the possibilities of a Godfrey/Cordelia union. But you've made a great case for it. Your final words suggest possible reservations on the idea but frankly - whatever Godfrey's internal contradictions - a lifetime of dealing with Irene Bullock's shenanigans is something I never would wish on him.

9:25 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

"My Man Godfrey" isn't the only example of unsustainable fadeouts. "Spite Marriage" has Buster winning over his wild bride with caveman courage, but he's still a mere pants presser and she's going to be a handful, even in a good mood. Harry Langdon may have found a plausible mate in "The Strong Man", but how long is he going to last as the constable in a border town momentarily cleaned up? "Safety Last" is all about Harold deluding the girl into thinking he's an executive at the department store, and at fadeout she still believes that and he's still just a clerk, albeit with a cash windfall.

I submit that the more common dubious ending is the oafish hero who, by luck or deception, scores some kind of victory that ensures the heroine's affections and/or parental consent. But it doesn't bode well for the the long term. At the end of "The General" Buster is a Confederate officer. Beyond the lack of long-term advancement potential, there's the fact that Buster has been shown to be a genius with trains but barely capable in battle. Away from his engine he's going to be a liability to the South.

Yes, many films take time to establish that the heroine loves the hero (however improbably) even before he stumbles over the finish line or accidentally foils a villain. But he has to DO something to be worthy. In "The Freshman", the girl loves Harold although she knows he's the unwitting campus joke. He still has to win that football game. "Gold Rush" ends with the girl thinking Charlie is a busted stowaway and trying to save him (although I'm not sure if it's love or guilt feelings over that party). He still needs to have struck gold.

Keaton's heroines generally liked him from the get-go, but often had a pouty schoolgirl streak that demanded he best a rival or improve himself ... which he may not have been inclined to do, left to his own devices. The girl in "The General" demands that he become a brave soldier, although she does seem to accept being rescued as adequate substitute.

Getting into the sound era, Bob Hope's cowardly egotists usually won over gorgeous damsels in distress. Said damsels were very frequently smarter and braver than he was, but this was slightly mitigated by the damsels knowing what they were getting (gunslinger Jane Russell takes to useless dentist Hope in "Paleface"), and sometimes by Hope having a redeeming moment of self-awareness near the end. Danny Kaye, a chameleon and mimic, frequently played fools who plausibly became whatever it was they needed to be.

Outright clowns like Red Skelton and Lou Costello generally won the girl, often ignoring a more suitable supporting comedienne in the same movie -- except when they ended up alone for a forced Chaplin ending. .

The comedy formula argues that love -- a heroine's love, anyway -- can be Earned, or even Acquired. In fairy tales a princess would conveniently fall for a commoner who performed a great deed, rescued her, or simply became absurdly rich. This carried over into movie comedy, often with bits of camouflage to make it less of a transaction. In recent years a romcom formula evolved with male versions of Lombard's heiress, supposedly charming goofs who succeed by being marginally less unpleasant than snobbish / square rivals.

There's also the assumption one wild, clearly unrepeatable event can secure your future as a soldier, detective, inventor, athlete, entertainer, tycoon, etc. Sometimes the hero's goals are fulfilled there, but just as often it's implied a fluke is launching him on an ill-advised career.

Under it all is the Lloydish idea that you can have anything -- or anybody -- if you're sufficiently determined, ability or virtue be darned.

To sum up ... uh ... well, there was an idea in there somewhere.

3:53 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Your p.o.v. is why, even as a 7 year old, I couldn't understand why the audience was laughing at Jonathan Winters in "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World" while his gas station was being torn to bits by the greedy idiots. Winters' reactions are painfully real to me, and not a bit funny. Same thing with Jack Lemmon crying in front of the Pigeon Sisters in "The Odd Couple". Is that really supposed to be funny?

4:50 PM  
Blogger Marc J. Hampton said...

Agree 100%

Here's Mine: The Philadelphia Story.

Tracy's father is a vile, manipulative, philandering jackass.
Macauley Connor is a thoughtless, immature, sexist jackass.
CK Dexter Haven is an opportunistic, narcissistic, physically abusive jackass.
George Kittredge is just a dullard.

I keep hoping for an alternate ending where Tracy tells ALL the men in her life that they are losers, and that she is headed to NYC to be a world news reporter and marry a sportscaster.

5:47 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

One more footnote: A goodly stretch ago a film critic -- think he wrote for the AV Club on The Onion website -- identified a new cliche character: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The MPDG was a free spirit bursting with sex appeal, eager to offer her playful eccentricity and hot bod to a convention-bound hero. The TV series "Dharma and Greg" was all about such a fantasy figure, barely more real than Jeannie the genie or Monroe's uninhibited girl upstairs. Once the phenomenon of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl had a name, she became a mockable target and MPDGs faded back a bit.

I submit that Lombard's character is an early manifestation of the MPDG. Sexy and eager; charmingly off base; throwing herself at a sensible older male whose dullness can be argued to be good for her. Did/Do girls identify with Lombard, or perhaps dream of being so pretty and rich as to get away with anything? Or is she ultimately a pure male fantasy? For balance, one might argue Powell himself is a fantasy figure, a Jeeves who rescues the family fortune, sets both daughters straight and gallantly refuses to take advantage -- but can be had if a girl makes a modest effort.

2:28 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I think you've hit on it, Donald. Could Lombard as Irene have been the very first Manic Pixie Dream Girl?

5:44 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

One thing for certain is that Powell has not got leading man looks for today's movies.

7:23 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

It was Jonathan Winters who did the Godzilla-like demolishing of the gas station and it's one of my favorite scenes in the movie.

11:47 AM  
Blogger Brother Herbert said...

Would Katharine Hepburn in BRINGING UP BABY count as a Manic Pixie etc. etc.?

12:26 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I wonder if the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" was a pure fantasy, with upper-class Society girls of the time being as a matter of fact the exact opposite in "real life", or whether there was some famous Society girl not in the movies who was celebrated for being of this type in the then-current newspapers and who thus served as an inspiration. Seems to me to be too common a type in the movies of that decade for there not to be an angle of some kind to this type of character in the "non-movie" life of America in the 1930s. But maybe I'm wrong, and the screenwriters were simply enamoured of this type of girl, or maybe they simply found it easier to construct stories about the type, as this type would present as more sympathetic than the actual High Society girls of that time.
On the other hand, if the movies with this type of character consistently made money, I suppose that would in itself be enough to keep these kinds of characters popping up on screen until the public simply grew tired of them and the films started consistently losing money.

8:04 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers a Godfrey-Cordelia union:

Sir Oswald Mosley, the maverick British politician from the twenties and thirties, was a notorious philanderer. There were few women in his circle that he hadn’t bedded or tried to. When he became aware of the distress he was causing his wife, however, he decided to make a clean breast of it. He told her about his affairs, in name and number, and assured her of his fidelity in the future. A friend, listening to him recount this story, was suitably impressed but asked whether he included her sister among those affairs he spoke of. Sir Oswald paused, then allowed as to how he hadn’t gone quite that far. Understanding has its limits, after all.

So, I can quite imagine a liaison between Godfrey and Cordelia. Since the object of her desire had humbled her, she will be determined to prove herself the good woman he apparently wants and all the more determined, in the process, to entangle him in her embrace.

The great difference between screwball comedies and wacky lives is that, in a comedy, if the leading man and the leading lady find themselves ensnared by inconvenient marriages or engagements to others, why, those marriages or engagements will have dissolved as readily as a capful of Bromo Seltzer in a glass of water by the end of the show. The jilted spouse or fiancée are invariably of such a bovine temperament that they will be none the worse for the experience, but will only move on, as it were, from one pasture to another.

That is where “My Man Godfrey” poses a complication, however. Pixie or nymph, Irene seems to have real feelings for Godfrey. They may have no more weight than a butterfly’s wing, but if he were to take up with Cordelia, she would be terribly, terribly hurt. Let a man be beast, let him look upon the face of beauty, but if he is as one dead, it will most likely be because of his wife’s tears. Scarcely any man other than a Harry Flashman wants to think of himself as a cad, least of all someone like Godfrey.

So, Godfrey and Cordelia may very likely find consolation in the other’s arms in a hypothetical sequel, but it will not be a comedy. Rather, it will be the stuff of melodrama and tragedy; or, as my dear mother said after I took her to see “The Painted Veil,” which is, of course, set during a cholera epidemic in China in the twenties, “You know, there weren’t a lot of laughs in that one.”

10:00 AM  
Blogger James Abbott said...

I will echo the notion that Powell is fabulous until the cows come home -- and even after that. He was my favorite performer during my boyhood, and to this day I resent that "adult life" isn't more like The Thin Man. He made any picture better just by being in it. (See Libeled Lady for Powell at the height of his art -- or maybe Star of Midnight.)

That said, I never "got" My Man Godfrey. None of the family he saved seemed worth the effort, and he himself at times seemed timorous or unsure. Oddly enough, it worked better with David Niven in the remake as it was a less political picture.

3:36 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Yes, Hepburn in "Bringing Up Baby" and Streisand in the quasi-remake "What's Up Doc". Also the other Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's". In the first, MPDG gets stiff scientist to Live Life. In the second, a kept man saves a MPDG from Living Life and ends up saving himself in the bargain.

"Harold and Maude" offers the oldest MPDG in Ruth Gordon, being wacky and saving a rich, morbid young loser. "A New Leaf" offers a seemingly anti-MPDG in Elaine May, an oddly endearing mess courted by caddish Walter Matthau for her money. The ending almost echoes "My Man Godfrey", but you're more optimistic about the future. "Arthur" may have a genuine anti-MPDG in Liza Minelli, a spirited but grounded waitress who thoroughly understands Dudley Moore's giddy drunk and loves him for being a giddy drunk. Now that's a fantasy, but perhaps a standard one in the constant pairing of broad comics and desirable women.

For real-life MPDGism I flash back to a high school conversation, where two of my female classmates were discussing a third: "She always goes around saying 'Oh, I'm crazy', 'I'm so crazy'. She is crazy, but not the way she thinks she's crazy."

Corollary: The Manic Pixie Bro

Lovable troublemakers have always been useful for writers. I recall a piece about "Wind in the Willows", analyzing why the stubbornly sensible Ratty, Mole and Badger remain friends with the wildly irresponsible Mr. Toad. The critic opined that Toad was their "Sunday rotogravure" -- that is, just enough color and exotica in their otherwise orderly lives. And, a useful device for Kenneth Grahame to drive his gentler characters to action. The Manic Pixie Bro, epitomized in our own age as the wacky neighbor or relative who stirs up disasters but somehow remains lovable, or at least amusing: Norton in "The Honeymooners", or Kramer and George in "Seinfeld". Perhaps as much a fantasy as the MPDG. I knew an individual who adored the movie "Stepbrothers", in which annoying, aging slackers -- prime Manic Pixie Bros -- become successful favorite sons. Said individual was himself a parents'-basement type, so the fantasy was in identification. I'm not sure anybody fantasizes about having Manic Pixie Bros in their life, except to the extent of wishing they were played by expert comics instead of real-life jerks or idiots.

4:32 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I've been a little impatient with the Wind In The Willows portion of ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD in the past, but now lean to watching again now that you've proposed Mr. Toad as a Manic Pixie Bro. Guess I could plug that character and concept into any number of favorite films to make them more enriching. The whole thing had not really occurred to me until these comments for MY MAN GODFREY, so there is plentiful food for thought here, which is much appreciated, as always, from Greenbriar readers.

5:04 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I can see how "ditzy" female characters, often enough seen in supporting roles, are related to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl - but I can't help but notice there's little in the male version to render such characters as being in any way 'dreamy' - and as to 'ditzy' males in support, can it be that all of the Manic Bro types are related to Jerry Lewis' comic persona?

6:08 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

In the Martin-Lewis years, you can make a case for Dino being the Manic Pixie Bro. He's usually a jerk or worse, taking advantage of Jerry's trusting idiot and getting away with it on charm. Several of their films play like romances, with Dino eventually coming round to realize Jerry is the faithful best friend he never deserved. Dino then does right by his little buddy, which figures in bringing Dino's love interest around as a side benefit (it proves to her Dino's not just a wolf). In real life, I suspect the Dino types simply burn through friends and girls as long as they can.

Lewis on his own was the standard movie comedian, insofar as his basic plot was screwing up but finally redeeming himself. A remnant of the Martin-Lewis formula is that the whole world seems unable to appreciate him until the last reel, when some character tells Jerry and/or the world how wonderful and brilliant he is.

Since movies and pop culture in general are generally produced by Guys for Guys, the MPDG exists mainly as a fantasy girlfriend, while the non-supporting-role MPB is how smug, self-centered Guys want to see themselves. A sure identifier of a Manic Pixie Bro as hero is the presence of a really vile rival -- often the kind of "uptight" professional / social superior outperforming the aging class clown in real life. The Delta boys in "Animal House" are heroes almost entirely because the jocks are not only snobs and bullies, but kind of creepy. The jocks' initiation with klan robes and paddles makes the Deltas' ceremony look wholesome.

Think I finally wrung that one dry.

2:58 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I just watched ANIMAL HOUSE again last week, and agree with you fully, Donald. There is a film that should be featured at Greenbriar, a real 70's breakthrough you had to be there to fully appreciate.

4:46 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff recognizes some of the above outstanding comments on GODFREY and suggests a future GPS posting:

A quick note to praise the recent fine MY MAN GODFREY post and the numerous stimulating comments from your reliably perceptive regulars. All the comments were worthwhile, but DBenson's musings on the "Manic Pixie Bro" (or, in the case of Jerry, the "Manic Pixie Idiot") were a standout. Great stuff -- lots of ideas and food for thought. Let me join in support of a future post on the impact of ANIMAL HOUSE... even though the movie is only forty-two years old, relatively new for Greenbriar coverage.

-- Griff

5:20 AM  

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