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Film / My Man Godfrey

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The rich girl Irene with her protégé... er, butler.

"All you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people."
Alexander Bullock

My Man Godfrey is a 1936 Screwball Comedy film directed by Gregory La Cava, based on the novel 1101 Park Avenue by Eric S. Hatch. It stars William Powell and Carole Lombard, and was the first film to receive Academy Award nominations in all four acting categories; it was also a favorite of Roger Ebert, who included it in his Great Movies List. It got a remake in 1957 starring David Niven and June Allyson, but that version is generally seen as far inferior to the original, and has been pretty much forgotten.

The Bullocks are a wealthy New York City family consisting of gruff businessman Alexander (Eugene Pallette), his pampered wife Angelica (Alice Brady), and their two spoilt daughters. One evening, the family and a party full of their well-off socialite friends participate in a scavenger hunt, which involves searching for various items in order to win prizes. Rich Bitch daughter Cornelia (Gail Patrick) and her Spoiled Sweet sister Irene (Lombard) are after the rarest find of them all: a "forgotten man".

The sisters visit a junkyard full of homeless men who have been affected by The Great Depression. There, they find Godfrey (Powell), who is offended by the game and refuses to be taken by Cornelia to be paraded before her rich friends like a prize. Irene, meanwhile, apologizes to Godfrey and later offers him a job as a butler for their family's mansion, much to Cornelia's annoyance.

When Godfrey arrives the next morning, he is welcomed by the exhausted maid to a wild household full of snide commentators, eccentric women, and social drunkards. It only gets even more confusing when Irene develops a crush on him, while her father struggles to keep up the family's finances. And behind the scenes, the spiteful Cornelia is suspicious of Godfrey's history after she spots him getting friendly in a cafe with locals on his day off, and intends to find out his true intentions.

Hilarity Ensues.

This film provides examples of:

  • An Aesop: Don't judge a book by its cover.
  • Awful Wedded Life: Mr. Bullock can't stand his wife's spacey nature and loose attitude with money.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Inverted with Godfrey, who begins the movie as a scruffy homeless man and ends as an elegant three-piece suit. Regardless, his actor William Powell goes from ruggedly-handsome to a handsome sharply-dressed man.
  • Brutal Honesty: Godfrey to the rich people at the Scavenger Hunt. He explains that he had two reasons to accompany Irene: to help her, and "to see how a bunch of empty-headed nitwits conduct themselves". Having achieved both, he expresses delight at the idea of returning to "a society of really important people" back at the dump.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Irene and Mrs. Bullock.
    Irene Bullock: (looks out the window of Godfrey's club) Oh, it's a lovely view ... the view of the bridge. Is it always there?
  • Clueless Chick-Magnet: Without really trying or having much awareness of it, Godfrey gets both Bullock daughters and the maid to nurse crushes on him. It's debatable whether Mrs Bullock is immune to this trope, although there are brief interactions that can suggest otherwise.
  • Comically Missing the Point: Mr. Bullock vents his spleen at his family for spending 50% of their income when he has to pay 60% to the government in tax. Irene asks why he should give more to the government than to his own family.
  • Creative Closing Credits: The opening credits are on neon signs.
  • Cut Lex Luthor a Check: At the end of the film, Godfrey tells a humbled Cornelia that she ought to put her high spirits to better use.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Mr. Bullock and Cornelia.
  • Did You Get a New Haircut?: When Godfrey arrives for his first day as the Bullock butler, Irene doesn't recognise him clean-shaven and in a suit. She doesn't know what it is at first, and then realises that she met him with shabby clothes and stubble. She sleepily mumbles that she misses his stubble.
  • The Ditz: Mrs. Bullock is so dizzy she is unable to correctly recall the man her daughter announced her engagement two mere moments earlier. Irene herself is also a bit empty-headed, though she has a much more forceful personality than her vague mother.
  • Dysfunctional Family: The Bullocks. Man of the house Alexander dreads dealing with his wife and daughters. He apologizes profusely to the police after they fail to arrest anyone for stealing daughter Cornelia's necklace (which sounds more like he's begging them to arrest him to get out away from his family), and this exchange happens between him and Blake:
    Blake: Take a look at the dizzy old gal with the goat.
    Alexander Bullock: I've had to look at her for 20 years — that's Mrs Bullock!
    Blake: I'm terribly sorry!
    Alexander Bullock: How do you think I feel?
  • Fainting: Irene pretends to faint in Godfrey's arms after he announces that he's leaving in order to make him stay longer. It works instantly as he desperately tries to wake her before anyone notices.
  • Forceful Kiss: Irene pretends that she's feeling faint and lies on the sofa. When Godfrey leans over to check her, Irene clutches his face and pulls him into a kiss. When Irene's done, Godfrey tries to walk away as stoic as possible.
  • Frame-Up: When Godfrey rebuffs Cornelia's attempts to seduce him, she tries to get him fired by hiding her pearls under his mattress and dramatically announcing to her family that they have been stolen, leading the police to get involved. However, the plan blows up in her face when the police overturn Godfrey's mattress and find nothing, leading Cornelia to exclaim "They must be there!", revealing the entire plot to all present. Mr. Bullock rubs salt in the wound by telling Cornelia the pearls aren't insured, so she won't be able to replace them. It turns out Godfrey found the pearls and hid them before the police arrived; he later pawns them to raise money to buy up the de-valued Bullock Enterprises stock, which he signs over to the Bullocks to save them from financial ruin. He has more than enough money left over to buy back the ashamed Cornelia's pearls.
  • Gave Up Too Soon: Irene pretending to faint fails when she looks up to spy on Godfrey after he rests her on the couch. He catches her stare in the mirror he's in front of.
  • The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry: Irene vs Cornelia.
    • Irene is blonde and Cornelia is brunette. There isn't really a smart/pretty dichotomy but Cornelia is quieter than the energetic Irene.
    • When Godfrey rejects Cornelia's offer to be her entry in the scavenger hunt by making her fall into a pile of dirt, Irene takes him instead (mostly because she was much more polite). Even Godfrey is amazed when he discovers that the two of them are related.
    • Cornelia is arguably a bit more classist than Irene. When playing the scavenger hunt, she gleefully rushes to a homeless Godfrey and is disgusted when she finds out he's going to be the family butler, attempting to have him fired by accusing him of stealing. Irene felt sorry for him and immediately asks him to be the family butler because she didn't want to look like she was just dehumanising him for a point-and-laugh game in front of rich people. This is why Cornelia spends the movie trying to find out Godfrey's history whilst Irene attempts to make him declare his love for her. Cornelia has feelings for him too, which adds to her and her sister's bickering.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Irene, who is a sweet young woman with fair hair.
  • Hangover Sensitivity: Mrs. Bullock sees pixies when she's hungover in bed. She tells Godfrey not to walk on them as he enters the room.
  • Happy Dance: "Mr. Godfrey loves me! He put me in the shower!" Cue Irene jumping up onto a nearby divan, flinging her skirts, and doing a merry stomp.
  • Heartbroken Badass: As Godfrey explains to Tommy Gray, a failed romance from his days as the scion of a rich Boston family sent him on a downward spiral that left him contemplating jumping into the East River, and only a chance encounter with the derelicts by the river bank persuaded him to adopt their resilient attitude toward life's troubles, thanks to which he has developed the intelligence and savvy to become a shrewd businessman.
  • He Cleans Up Nicely: Godfrey, when he turns up at the Bullocks mansion for his first day as their butler. The family first saw him in scruffy clothing and thick stubble the night before, and don't recognise him when he arrives clean-shaven in a new suit (it didn't help that they were hungover, either; Irene even forgot that she'd offered Godfrey the job!).
  • Heel–Face Turn: Cornelia at the end of the film.
  • Hidden Depths: Godfrey, who is more business savvy than he appears.
  • Idle Rich: All of the Bullocks except Mr. Bullock. The satirical bite of these Idle Rich going to a dump to find the "forgotten man" was strong in the Great Depression, when there were a lot of forgotten men.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: During a typical evening at home, Mr. Bullock takes a whole tray of martinis and then asks Godfrey to "repeat the order in 30 minutes".
  • The Jeeves: Godfrey, except for the pardonable sin of being American.
  • Last-Minute Hookup: When Godfrey decides to leave, Irene tracks him down to a nightclub. She hires a priest and makes Godfrey's work partner and her chauffeur wedding guests, reassuring Godfrey that everything "will be over soon".
  • Light Feminine Dark Feminine: The two Bullocks daughters: the blonde Irene and the brunette Cornelia.
  • Literal-Minded: Mrs. Bullock has a weak grasp of figures of speech. For example, when Irene is melodramatically moping over Godfrey's initial rejection (which Godfrey ignores and Cornelia mocks) ahead of a tea party, she is asked where she would like the sandwiches served:
    Irene: [with exaggerated melancholy] What is food?...
    Mrs. Bullock: Something you eat, silly.
  • Looped Lyrics: Carlo singing "Ochi Tchorniye," but none of the other lyrics, so it's close to a Single Stanza Song. Bonus points to Mrs. Bullock for not knowing the name of the song.
  • Love Makes You Dumb: Irene exercises this trope, especially with the rather silly engagement ploy.
  • Mad Love: This sums up Irene's relationship to Godfrey.
  • Mister Muffykins: Mrs. Bullock's Pekingese.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Irene is one of the first in film history, possibly the Trope Maker.
  • Modeling Poses: Irene attempts several lounging poses around the house to make Godfrey notice her. Cornelia sees through it and teases her, identifying one of the poses as "Number 8" from her dramatic school years.
  • Nice Girl: Irene, despite being from an arrogant family. She was the one that offered a homeless man a job because she felt guilty, after all.
  • Noodle Incident: When being displayed on stage at the scavenger hunt, Godfrey is asked by the presenter if he can feel his stubble. The presenter says that when a family (supposedly) found a homeless man before, the stubble he had turned out to be false.
  • Oh, Crap!: Godfrey gets this expression at the Bullocks' tea party when Tommy Gray arrives; they know each other of old, and as Godfrey has been trying to keep the details of his past life a secret, he is very worried that those details are about to spill out in a torrent. (Luckily, he is able to come up with a ruse about being Tommy's former valet, and Tommy picks up on just enough cues to play along.)
  • Only Sane Man: Mr. Bullock, Molly the maid, and Godfrey.
  • Operation: Jealousy: Irene attempts to make Godfrey jealous by announcing that she is engaged to a party guest. Even said party guest is confused as he's congratulated by several male friends.
  • Over-the-Shoulder Carry: The way Godfrey carries fainted Irene up the stairs.
  • Pimped-Out Dress: Pretty much Irene's entire wardrobe.
  • Protagonist Title
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Cornelia asks Godfrey to be honest about what he thinks of her. Godfrey calls her variations of "a spoiled child", making her march out of the cafe in embarrassed outrage.
  • Rejection Affection: Irene can't stop flirting with Godfrey while he is constantly rejecting her advances.
  • Rich Bitch: Cornelia.
  • Riches to Rags: Bullock goes broke, due to a combination of bad investments and his family's spending ways. It's averted thanks to Godfrey.
  • Savvy Guy, Energetic Girl: Godfrey and Irene, whenever they interact.
  • Scavenger Hunt: These were very popular in the 1930s. The Bullocks and their rich friends participate in this to win prizes, and finding a homeless man is so rare, contestants get the best prize. This is how the sisters meet Godfrey.
  • Secretly Wealthy: Godfrey Smith (aka Godfrey Park of the Boston Parks).
  • Servile Snarker:
    • Molly the maid. After dealing with a family like the Bullocks, it's not surprising.
    • Godfrey is sharper-tongued, but blunted by Irene, who doesn't see through his comments.
  • Sexy Soaked Shirt: Godfrey figures out that Irene is faking a fainting spell, so he puts her in a shower and turns the water on. The results are pretty fanservice-y. This also causes Irene to realize that Godfrey cared enough to help her when she "fainted".
  • Shipper on Deck:
    • Godfrey's friend Tommy wants Godfrey to end up with Irene. When Irene arrives at his and Godfrey's office, Tommy doesn't attempt to have her escorted out by security and scuttles out of the room with a smirk.
    • The whole Bullock family want Godfrey to end up with Irene as well.
  • Surrounded by Idiots: Molly warns Godfrey on his first day of work that serving the Bullock family will end up like this. She was right.
  • The Thing That Would Not Leave: As far as Mr. Bullock is concerned, Carlo is a parasite who exists only to mooch free room and board from the family under the excuse of being Mrs. Bullock's "protégé", even though he never seems to get any closer to giving any of the concerts he is supposedly practising for; he spends more time eating than playing the piano, and whenever he does play, he only ever seems to rehearse the same few measures of the Russian song "Очи чёрные" ("Dark Eyes") - in his last scene, he is trying to sing and eat at the same time. Eventually, Mr. Bullock has enough and literally throws him out.
  • The Tramp: Godfrey. He started out rich, goes on to be a tramp, makes the money back and uses it to help the other tramps.
  • Tsundere: Cornelia, towards Godfrey. After falling in dirt, Cornelia is disgusted when her sister hires Godfrey as the family butler. She attempts to work out whether he's as innocent as the homelessness led him to be and even tries to accuse him of stealing from her. When he decides to leave, she is devastated and apologizes in tears, but Godfrey reassures her that his choice had nothing to do with her. Looks like she had a crush on him too, like her sister.
  • Turn the Other Cheek: Mr. Bullock until he finds out he is broke, and throws Carlo out the window, something that Godfrey praises him for.
  • Water Wake-up: Irene gets this treatment by Godfrey.