Here we are again. How were everyone’s holidays? Did anyone else feel like they just zipped by? Yeah, me too.
And yep, the eagle, er, angel has landed.
The Great Depression looms large in twentieth-century history. Roughly twenty-five percent of the American public were unemployed in 1933, and farmers in particular found themselves displaced. Bankers were not much safer, as one of the factors in the crash was the closing of too many banks at once. Men riding the rails looking for work was a common sight, as were families loading down their vehicles and heading off into the great unknown, if they could make it that far. Many of these people felt as though they were forgotten by society and everything that makes life good. One of the scariest things about that time was no one knew for sure if they would be forgotten next.
In the midst of the uncertainty, Carole Lombard rose to fame, and her life is the stuff of legend. Both of her parents came from wealthy families. Carole was at once beautiful and zany, charming everyone she met. She was athletic and popular at school. Her film career quickly took her from bit parts to drama to what she is most remembered for: screwball comedy. She married The King, aka, Clark Gable. She was the highest-paid actress in Hollywood. Then, just like that, Carole’s life was tragically snuffed out when she was killed in a plane crash on her way home from a war bond drive.
One of Carole’s most famous roles was that of Irene Bullock in the 1936 film, My Man Godfrey, opposite William Powell. While it typifies the screwball comedies so prevalent during the Great Depression, the film also roasts the rich and shows just how easy it is for fortunes to change.
The first scene takes place in the city dump by the East River, where two ragged-looking men huddle around a fire. One of them, Mike, complains to his buddy, Duke, about the tough day he’s had trying to make a little bit of money. “If them cops would stick to their own racket and leave honest guys alone, we’d get somewhere in this country without a lot of this relief and all that stuff.”
“I wouldn’t worry, Mike. Prosperity is just around the corner.”
“Yeah, I’ve been hearing that for a long time. I wish I knew which corner.”
Mike heads off to bed, and seconds later the Bullock sisters enter, in search of a “Forgotten Man” for a scavenger hunt. Cornelia zeroes in on Duke, and is as casual as if she’s picking out new socks. After exchanging a few pleasantries, Duke nudges her away, literally–right into an ash pile.
Irene has better luck. Duke (who introduces himself as Godfrey) goes to the scavenger hunt with her out of curiosity, or so he says. The two of them end up in a chaotic ballroom at the Waldorf Ritz with a melee of other people in evening dress hauling in everything from nanny goats to bellows to produce carts. Godfrey is, of course, the hit of the night, and the well-heeled throng look at him rather curiously. He stays long enough to call them all nitwits before making a break for the door.
For some reason, though, Irene can’t bear to let Godfrey go, and offers him the job of butler. Long story short, suddenly the Forgotten Man is no longer forgotten, and he shows up at the Bullock mansion the next day having no idea what to expect. The maid informs him that the Bullock house has had a long succession of butlers who couldn’t even stick out the morning routine, because the family is extremely picky and also nutty, which is a volatile combination.
Amazingly, though, Godfrey manages to not only get through the morning, but takes the many foibles of his new job in stride, “foibles” being the operative word. The Bullocks are filthy rich, and they live in the proverbial opulent bubble. Heaven forbid any of them talk to someone of a lower class than theirs. The Bullocks give parties for a hundred without batting an eye, and are used to the finest of everything. In fact, they’re so used to the finest of things that Cornelia has a habit of losing jewelry costing six figures, or chucking it out of car windows in fits of pique.
Meanwhile, the mother, Angelica, has a protegé (kept man, more like) named Carlo, who is just there, and he’s annoying. This guy spends his days torridly playing and singing “Ochi Chernye” on the piano and intoning Tennyson, not to mention acting like a gorilla and swinging from the fancy Art Deco double doors. Oh, and he eats like a horse. The dad, Alexander (who’s the sanest Bullock of the bunch), finally has enough and throws Carlo out on his ear.
Then of course, there are Cornelia and Irene, the Bullock’s young-adult daughters. Cornelia is a selfish, to-the-letter snob and disdainful big sister, but Irene is a diva. A well-meaning but spoiled and manipulative diva. Irene has the idea that Godfrey is her Carlo, which Godfrey backs away from, but not before explaining to Irene that the proprieties must be observed. Irene’s response is to fake crying jags or strike melodramatic poses to get sympathy, and her mother enables her. However, Irene has met her match in Godfrey. He doesn’t play her games, and she respects Godfrey for it even while she pines for him. He lets her help him do the dishes one night, and they have an actual conversation instead of her trying to work an angle. Funnily enough, Irene likes housework, even something as menial as sewing on buttons, but she’s expected to be decorative and not think or do anything for herself.
For that matter, the rest of the family has met their match in Godfrey as well. This is probably due to Godfrey not being a typical butler. At first listen, he’s awfully well-spoken and cultured for a guy who lived in a cardboard box by the river. He slips into the high-toned butler role as if he’s been around rich people all his life. Godfrey also has a brief uncomfortable moment at a party when he meets an old friend, Tommy Gray, who says they went to Harvard together. Hmmm. Apparently Godfrey isn’t as forgotten as he seems.
Over a drinks the next day, Godfrey comes clean to Tommy about what he’s been doing, and it’s no bolt from the blue that he comes from a well-to-do family himself. In a nutshell, he had woman troubles and wanted to spare his family the embarrassment, so he thought he would throw himself into the river. On the way, though, he couldn’t help but think twice when he saw the Forgotten Men. “There were some people fighting it out and not complaining. I never got as far as the river.”
On another day, Godfrey takes Tommy to see his shack. Tommy thinks Godfrey is crazy and owes nothing to the Forgotten Men, but Godfrey delivers a statement that blows Tommy’s mind: “The only difference between a derelict and a man is a job.”
Prescient words, because no one is safe from their circumstances shifting. The Bullock family learn that the hard way when Alexander tells his horrified wife and daughters that they’re about broke. Just as it looks as though they’ll end up in a cardboard box by the river, newly-wise Godfrey tells them, “There comes a turning point in every man’s life. A time when he needs help.” Whence does the Bullocks’ help come? I’m not going to give it away, except to say that the finish is satisfyingly ironic.
While the bulk of the movie belongs to William Powell, Carole Lombard’s performance in My Man Godfrey is wonderful. She plays ditzy diva Irene with obvious enjoyment, and takes the melodrama to the limit. She can be childish in spots, but she’s supposed to be, and fortunately it’s not in a Baby Snooks kind of way. Carole’s chemistry with William Powell is easy and fun. It doesn’t hurt that they were good friends in real life, as well as exes, having been divorced for three years by the time the film was released. In fact, Powell lobbied for Lombard to play the role of Irene, and how right he was.
So in the end, who is the Forgotten Man? Well, we have met him, and he is us. To be forgotten doesn’t always mean living in a cardboard box in the city dump. It can mean being a dressed-up doll when one really wants to do household chores. It can mean being so immersed in the filthy-rich lifestyle that a person loses sight of how much good they can be doing. It can also mean having a fortune suddenly whisked away. When people lose a healthy sense of purpose, they are forgotten. The key is, however, to remember, even if other people don’t. As Godfrey told Tommy, “It’s surprising how fast you can go downhill when you begin to feel sorry for yourself.”
For more Profane Angel entries, please stop by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. Thanks, Crystal and Laura for hosting this blogathon, thank you for reading, and see you all next time!
My Man Godfrey is available on Amazon.