1936 / Best Director

Film #634: My Man Godfrey (1936)

I find it interesting reading up on some of the directors on this list especially as their backgrounds explain some of the decisions they make in their Oscar-nominated pictures. Gregory La Cava is a case in point, as he’s someone who started their career making short animated films before transitioning into silent movies and finally talking pictures. Although he directed the dramatic Best Picture nominee Stage Door, La Cava was best known for his work on comedies where he employed a rather cartoon-like style which he would’ve learned during his early years. This is certainly evident in My Man Godfrey, the only other movie to be nominated during the initial years when there were between ten and twelve films in the Best Picture category, as it’s a fast-paced screwball comedy albeit one with a social message attached to it.

The title character of the movie is played by William Powell who, when we first meet him, is living on the streets as a ‘forgotten man’ but it’s not long before his world is invaded by the zany Bullock family. Bratty heiress Cornelia wishes to pay Godfrey to be her discovery in a scavenger hunt that she’s participating and her offer of five dollars is met with a push in an ash pile. However, Cornelia’s sweeter sister Irene stays to chat to Godfrey and he eventually decides to attend the scavenger hunt; which she wins thanks to his presence. As she’s taken with his frank nature, Irene invites Godfrey to become the butler for the Bullock family, an offer that he accepts and soon is thrust into the crazy world of the Bullocks. Whilst the patient patriarch of the family has no issue with Godfrey, Cornelia doesn’t like the fact that Irene has invited him off the street and tries to make life as a painful as possible for him. The plot begins to thicken when an attendee at one of the Bullock’s parties recognises Godfrey as a college chum and wonders what’s he’s doing working as a butler. When the pair devise a story about Godfrey’s secret family, Irene; who has developed a crush on her new butler quickly gets engaged to one of the upper-class oafs at the party, something that doesn’t go down too well with her father. Gradually, we begin to learn why Godfrey ended up sleeping rough and both La Cava and the film’s screenwriters add a dash of social commentary to the screwball comedy as the film progresses. Although I did predict one of the film’s final twists, I didn’t foresee what Godfrey would do for the Bullock family and how one of Cornelia’s schemes ultimately helped the family hold on to most of their money. The only issue I had with the movie’s ending was that I felt Irene surprising Godfrey with a wedding was a rushed moment and it almost felt as if the film had run out of budget. Although it was great that they received a happy ending, Godfrey and Irene’s love story didn’t receive the focus it deserved in the movie therefore I was a little underwhelmed with this conclusion.

That being said, My Man Godfrey was a pleasant surprise and one of the easiest movies to watch that I’ve come across on this blog. The opening scene where the Bullock sisters encounter Godfrey suggests that this will be quite a serious film especially in the way William Powell portrays the character as a long-in-the-tooth vagrant. However, the colourful tone of the movie is soon established when we Irene and Godfrey enter the chaotic scavenger hunt where the Bullock matriarch Angelica has just arrived with a goat. I believe that these colourful set pieces, of which there are many in My Man Godfrey, demonstrate La Cava’s directorial style who is able to derive comedy from most scenarios. His background as an animator allows him to make sure the audience know where to look during many a crowded scene and there are plenty of reaction shots that enhance the movie’s humour brilliantly. The same year My Man Godfrey was released, the Oscars also introduced the supporting actor and actress categories; to reward those who made significant contributions in movies even though they weren’t the leads. Due to its fantastic ensemble cast, My Man Godfrey was the first film to receive nominations in all four acting categories with William Powell being recognised for his role in this movie instead of that year’s Best Picture winner The Great Ziegfeld. Powell is brilliant here, excelling as the straight man in a houseful of overtly comedic characters whilst at the same time adding a depth to the character when he’s describing how he fell on tough times. Carole Lombard is equally excellent as the ditzy but sweet-natured Irene and she portrays her character’s growing feelings for Godfrey splendidly. Alice Brady, who would win the supporting actress award a year later, was one of the inaugural nominees in that category for playing the utterly dotty Angelica. Meanwhile, as Angelica’s protege Carlo, Mischa Auer received a Best Supporting Actor nomination even though I feel that Eugene Pallette was a more fitting nominee as he had some brilliant one-liners as Alexander Bullock.

I’m completely at a loss why a film with six significant Oscar nominations didn’t receive a Best Picture nod especially considering there were a total of ten nominees that year. The only theories I can come up with was that a more famous William Powell movie was in contention that year with The Great Ziegfeld sweeping the board in many categories. Furthermore, there was another rags-to-riches story in contention for that year’s Oscar in Mr Deeds Goes to Town, with that film’s director Frank Capra beating La Cava to the Best Director award. However, I believe that My Man Godfrey deserved a Best Picture nod due to its fantastic ensemble cast and La Cava’s assured comedic directing style.

Next time we head back to the earlier Oscar ceremonies with a movie that I know very little about other than it features one of the most famous movie stars of the 1930’s.

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