10 June 2013

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: UNEMPLOYMENT COMEDIES

Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: when it's not busy blowing Google, The Internship attempt to draw broad, crowd-pleasing laughs out of the very real suffering of the unemployed and underemployed in a down economy. This might seem tasteless on the surface (and The Internship certainly isn't looking to called tasteful), but it is part of a tradition stretching back to a much more debilitating economic collapse than our own.

The next time you get into a fight over what movie has the best opening credits - if you're like me, this happens at least four or five times a month - I want you to make sure to keep in mind My Man Godfrey, a film whose overarching theme contrasting the stylish, empty world of New York's high society of the 1930s with the weary life of the "forgotten men" of the Depression (the high-minded euphemism for "unemployed and homeless" at the time) is introduced even before a single character or plot point shows up. A simply terrific model suggesting an Art Deco/Impressionist hybrid of lights of Broadway flickers on and off with the name of the film crew, the actors, and so on, the camera panning across this incredibly inventive approach to listing the people who made the movie, before ending on a matte painting of a shantytown on the river; a dissolve elegantly brings us into the living, steaming version of that same shantytown, and it's here that we finally enter into one of the Depression's best movies about itself. For there were many, many comedies about the well-dressed, witty inhabitants of the upper crust in those years, all the better to escape the crushing reality of life; but barely any of them are as open in their admission that, beneath all the class and glamor, things really were bad all over, and that idolising the rich classes certainly wasn't helping matters.

All of which sounds awfully serious, so let me clarify right away: My Man Godfrey is a hilarious movie, as satisfying a screwball comedy as they ever made, with one of the best performances in the career of the legendary comic actress Carole Lombard (maybe even the best, give or take Twentieth Century). It's an emphatically grown-up movie from a time when film comedies anticipated a more sophisticated viewer, one who was invigorated by getting some uncomfortably insightful moral barbs in the course of a breezy romantic farce.

The barbs start first. In the riverfront dump where the action begins, we find a scruffy, bedraggled man named Godfrey (William Powell), one luckless man among many. His luck is about to change, for a pair of rich society girls have just arrived: the Bullock sisters, Cornelia (Gail Patrick) and Irene (Lombard). They're playing a scavenger hunt, in which the final object to find is a "forgotten man", and Cornelia haughtily offers Godfrey five dollars to be her trophy. This offends him at such a deep level that he offers instead to go with the much kinder - and much flightier - Irene, just to keep Cornelia from winning. Intoxicated by this first-eve victory over her sister, Irene spontaneously offers Godfrey a job as the Bullocks' butler, a position that has just vacated with the resignation of their old butler that morning.

And so begins an immensely quick-footed screwball comedy of manners, in which Godfrey obverses first with amusement and then with alarm the strange and dysfunctionally wacky Bullock household, overseen by the impressively airheaded Mrs. Angelica Bullock (Alice Brady), and paid for by the grumbling, irritable Alexander Bullock (Eugene Pallette). In 90 minutes, Godfrey becomes the object of Irene's affections, the source of Cornelia's wrath, and is outed as the fallen son of a rich family of his own, while trying to keep some measure of sanity and dignity in the face of an addle-headed clan so off-putting that the family maid Molly (Jean Dixon) is visibly impressed when Godfrey survives his first 20 minutes in the household.

All that being said, My Man Godfrey is light on plot and heavy on character-driven comedy, in which all of the principals play, more or less, the characters they always played in everything, and simply watching their comings and goings is in and of itself held to be amusing. One's ability to engage with the movie much at all is thus entirely a function of how much patience one has for '30s-style humor (though My Man Godfrey is such a top-tier example of the form, with all the actors at or near the top of their game, that it's exactly the sort of film that could make a fan of '30s comedy out of just about anybody). Alice Brady is at her idiotically antilogical, self-satisfied, flute-voiced Alice Bradiest; Eugene Pallette is at his most impatient, passively angry, gravel-voiced Eugene Pallettest; Mischa Auer, as a Russian pianist hanger-on of the family, as it is most floridly cartoon Russian Mischa Auerest.

And for all that I love those actors, they are none of them the best reason to watch My Man Godfrey (though any of those performances, or Patrick's flawlessly bitchy antagonist, would be a reason to suffer through a much worse movie). Powell and Lombard are the stars of the film in every regard, with Powell in particular giving a fascinating variation on his usual persona of the well-bred literate gent with the carefully veiled sarcasm, letting some true outrage into his portrayal of a downtrodden man offended to his soul by the ludicrous extravagance of the rich, a deep human emotion of a kind that Powell virtually never taps into in any of his glossier society pictures. In Lombard's case, it's the unimprovable execution of a '30s stock character that impresses, with the tremendously gifted comic chameleon taking the '30s favorite kind of screwball heroine, the one who might actually be dangerously insane, and run far closer to the edge of actual depravity, pushing Irene further into the alienating self-centered delight that even as great a performer as Katherine Hepburn took one step back from in even as great a film as Bringing Up Baby. More than any other screwball heroine, Irene Bullock is truly unstable, and having gone so far with her character, Lombard walks right back, making the character genuinely funny, and keeping her flirtiness firmly within an appealing, charming register, making this most dangerous of comic heroines also a singularly likable one. It's a tremendous comic performance, as inexhaustible as the best of the best: Hepburn in Holiday, Dunne in The Awful Truth, Stanwyck in The Lady Eve.

The other irreplaceable member of the creative team - besides writers Eric Hatch & Morrie Ryskind, who got the whole thing going - is director Gregory La Cava, one of the great "lost" directors of the '30s. Not every one of his films is equally successful; not everything he does in My Man Godfrey works completely (there are some deeply questionable blocking decisions in the early dialogue scenes). But what he does here to keep the comedy light and speedy - 90 minutes is a compact running time, less by 1936 standards than our own, but it still seems impossible to me that My Man Godfrey can possibly be even that long - and to mix the serious cultural comedy with the more generic "silly rich people" screwball comedy, is one-of-a-kind brilliant. There's a piercing, perfect touch that ranks La Cava's work in this film right up along with the best comedy direction that you could find in that period, which includes some of the best-directed comedies in the English language; it's thanks to him that My Man Godfrey is such a blast, and so effective in its high-minded criticism. That kind of delicacy wasn't any less rare in '36 than it is now, and the unflagging energy that La Cava brings to the scenes and draws out of his top notch cast leave this film at the top of the heap, a funny movie that's also a well-made film, and a message picture that hasn't lost an ounce of its thematic resonance even after all these decades.

3 comments:

Brandon said...

Can I just say that I adore your reviews of classic movies? Not as much as I adore the classic movies, obviously, because that would be silly.

Still, even though they probably get the fewest comments, please, never stop doing them.

Also, I second every mention of your great comic actresses, and I hope that it was mere space conservation that made you leave out Colbert in It Happened One Night and Russell in His Girl Friday. Oh, who am I kidding? One could probably keep going for days. It really was the golden age of the romantic comedy.

Tim said...

"One could probably keep going for days"

Exactly, which is why I had to leave out not just those two, but Miriam Hopkins and Kay Francis in Trouble in Paradise, Ginger Rogers in Stage Door, and the entire female cast of Dinner at Eight, and that's just what I was thinking of in at the time of writing that paragraph.

Thanks for the kind words! I love writing them, which is why they'll never die off.

Brandon said...

You're right! And we still haven't mentioned Garbo in Ninotchka, Loy in The Thin Man, Arthur in Easy Living... and it is clear that we will go on forever unless we change the subject. Or at least until there are no more great golden age comedies. Which is... almost the same thing.

So. My Man Godfrey. Pretty great movie, huh?