My Man Godfrey

My Man Godfrey is a screwball comedy about a wealthy family that takes a homeless guy (a “forgotten man” in the parlance of the film) and makes him their butler. The play opens at a public dump near the East River in New York. Two wealthy sisters scramble down and the older one offers Godfrey (William Powell), a resident, $5 if he will go with them to the Ritz hotel. They are competing in a scavenger hunt, which, in the words of the younger sister, is like “a treasure hunt, only instead of looking for things which everyone wants, we look for things which nobody wants.” For their hunt they need to bring in a forgotten man, and Godfrey would fit the bill nicely. Godfrey, for his part, sees this little power game for what it is, and pushes the older sister into an ashpile.

Irine (Carole Lombard), the younger sister, is tickled pink by this. Her naivite and Godfrey’s curiosity about the vulgar ritual lead him to accompany her back to the hotel, where she wins the silver cup for bringing in the first forgotten man. To repay her debt to him, she offers him a job as the butler in her house. He accepts, and then the movie really takes off.

The movie is at its most biting when it shows how disconnected and amoral the fabulously wealthy are. Godfrey, as Irine’s new project or protege, is compared to her Pomeranian that died the previous year. She falls in love with him — indeed, everyone falls in love with him. He endures these indiginities, as well as the insanity of the household, with remarkable aplomb. Of course, he is not who he seems to be. When a family friend comes to visit, it turns out he was Godfrey’s roommate at Harvard.

What was most interesting to me about this film was that at the same time that it cuts into the elite’s unawareness of the plight of those hardest hit by the Depression, it serves to reify the notion of the elite as the only ones with agency. Yes, Godfrey was homeless, but his homelessness was a result of depression caused by a lost love. His family, prominent Boston Brahmins all, would have been scandalized had they known he was living in a dump. I’m not sure if the story could have been told any differently. The plot demands an explanation of how Godfrey could be so good at his job, so attentive to detail, and able to save his employers from bankruptcy. That explanation is that he is highly educated, a member of the elite himself.

At the end of the movie, Godfrey leaves his job for a side project he started — a nightclub called “The Dump” on the landfill created in his old home. All his old friends from when he was homeless are employed there. The place doesn’t turn a large profit, but provides real warm housing for its 50 employees. In essence, it is almost a cooperative, a business that puts the needs of its employees first and is not driven by an obsession with maximising profit. We could use more of that nowadays, I think.

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0 thoughts on “My Man Godfrey

  1. I’ve seen the second half of that movie! It was on PBS late one night a few years ago. Unless there’s another movie where William Powell plays a well brought up man who lives in a garbage dump.

    But I didn’t know what it was called until now.

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