The name for probably my favorite movie genre, screwball comedy—-essentially romantic farce—-was coined, it seems, from the original Variety review of Carole Lombard’s dizzy performance in the utterly delightful 1936 Depression-era comedy directed with consummate savoir faire by Gregory LaCava, MY MAN GODFREY (available on DVD). Said the trade paper’s critic, accurately: “Lombard has played screwball dames before, but none so screwy as this one.” Two years earlier, Howard Hawks had started Lombard as an out-there comedienne, with John Barrymore, in the backstage classic, Twentieth Century, but in My Man Godfrey she conclusively immortalized herself as the gorgeous queen of madcap.
Playing the younger daughter in a wealthy, eccentric East Side family, Lombard sets off on a Park Avenue treasure hunt, trying to best her older, saner sister (Gail Patrick) and her quite loony mother (Alice Brady) by bringing in the most difficult treasure required, a real live “forgotten man,” the 1930s term for a down-and-out member of the homeless. The ugly irony of rich people playing games with the poor is not lost on LaCava, and the darker social aspects of this often satirical, witty piece are never totally out of sight.
The hobo Lombard brings home is done with graceful, charming dignity by William Powell (who, earlier in the decade, had been married to Lombard for two years) and both he and his ex-wife received Oscar nominations for best actor and actress. The simple plot—-cleverly adapted by Morrie Ryskind from Eric Hatch’s novel (screenplay also nominated)—-is that Lombard convinces her long-suffering father (Eugene Pallette in an archetypal basso profundo performance) to hire Godfrey (Powell) as their live-in butler, not least because she has romantic stirrings for him, hence the triple-entendre of the title: prize, butler, lover. Godfrey, of course, does more than his job and teaches the entire family some basic lessons about life, before a slight cop-out reveals that he’s not really a bum after all.
The most delicious subplot has to do with the relationship between the mother (a hilarious turn by Brady, who received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress) and her “cultured” gigolo, a Russian pianist-artiste-charlatan (the outrageously funny Mischa Auer who was nominated as best supporting actor); his sulks and posturing moments are among the picture’s best. Of course, LaCava’s impeccable direction (also recognized with an Oscar nomination) keeps everything going in exactly the right tempo, together with a slight detachment that makes it all the more sophisticated and resonant. Not surprising from this underrated filmmaker who did W.C. Fields’ best silent picture, So’s Your Old Man (1926), as well as the superb show-business comedy-drama Stage Door (1937), along with a number of other likable, affecting works throughout the ‘20s and ‘30s.
But Lombard’s wacky, touching energy and joie de vivre here at age 28 is what gives My Man Godfrey its most indelible impression. That she was killed in a plane crash only six years later—-at the height of her career, having just shot Ernst Lubitsch’s anti-Nazi comedy classic, To Be Or Not To Be (1942)—-is still hard to reconcile, giving all the greater poignancy to that old phrase about the good dying young.