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My Man Godfrey 1938 ****

A change of pace is required, perhaps; 1936’s My Man Godfrey is certainly something out of the ordinary, a screwball comedy, a massive hit at the time, but making all kinds of assumptions which seem fantastically odd by modern standards. This is a comedy, but also a sharp social satire, and there’s a sense of responsibility in Gregory La Cava’s fizzy concoction that’s highly unusual.

After some very creative titles, the film opens briskly with a scavenger hunt, during which a couple of rich broads are searching the city dump for a ‘forgotten man’. As an into, this catches today’s viewer cold; it’s possible that one might imagine what a scavenger hunt is, but what kind of amusement would involve finding tramps? A self-centred one, the film reveals, since the two women Cordelia and Irene Bullock (Gail Patrick and Paulette Goddard) pick something of a cracker in Godfrey (William Powell), who initially rejects their request, only to succumb to curiosity about what a scavenger party is. Once Godfrey sees the potential humiliation, he denounces the entire well-to-do party as ‘nitwits’ and storms out, but not before Irene has twigged that he might be not only a good butler for her madcap family, but also a potential husband for herself.

There’s some elements of Bondu Saved from Drowning here, as a tramp shows frivolous richies how to behave, but there’s also a biting disdain for the mannered lifestyle of the wealthy; if you thought the Kardashians are a laughing stock, then the Bullocks are the 1930’s equivalent, brainless, self-centred and celebrating their own idiocy for our entertainment without a trace of self-awareness that the joke is on them. Idiot artist Carlo, played by the great Mischa Auer, is a particular delight, and the scene in which he leaps around the parlour pretending to be a monkey foreshadows a similar scene in 2018’s The Square.

It wouldn’t be until American Hustle that a film would win Oscar nominations in every major category other than Best Picture; today’s prejudice against comedies is nothing new. But My Man Godfrey’s class critique stings; Godfrey is clearly convinced that his masters are utter twits, and acts on it, so La Cava’s film has more social relevance that a dozen ‘prestige’ picture. While a few scenes drag, there’s also some absolutely crackling dialogue and delivery to savour here, not least because the two stars had got divorced several years before the film was made.

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