My Man Godfrey is a high point in the Hollywood films of the 1930s. It was a comedy, depicting the rich and their carefree life, but it also showed the life of the down-and-out, something that seemed not too distant as the Depression dragged on. It was made in April and May of 1936.
It is a unique part of both William Powell’s and Carole Lombard’s careers. They hadn’t played together as above-the-title stars, nor would they do so again. Hollywood viewed it as great casting. Powell’s performance is one of his best, as is Lombard’s. They had been married and divorced before they made this film together, and the exes’ personalities fit together well. Gregory LaCava, the director, was willing to make the movie with Constance Bennett, Universal’s choice for the female lead, if Universal would borrow Powell from MGM for the male lead. Powell’s contract stipulated that the only female lead he would play with in this film was Lombard. So Lombard played Irene, and again (as in Love Before Breakfast) brought her costume designer Travis Banton and her photographer Ted Tetzlaff from Paramount.
Interestingly, this film was shot “off the cuff”, without a finished script. In a 1938 interview, Eric Hatch, who wrote the novel on which it was based, said “Shooting off the cuff is shooting without the benefit of the usual prepared script or scenario. The lines are made up on the set as the action progresses…For three months before the actual shooting of the film Greg (LaCava) and I accumulated 200 pages of rough notes and dialogue. These unassorted notes constituted all the script we had.”
Some of the supporting players, who really make this movie, include Alice Brady as Irene’s ditzy mother, Eugene Pallette as her long –suffering father, Jean Dixon as the wise-cracking maid Molly, and Mischa Auer as Carlo, Irene’s mother’s live-in pianist.
This picture probably defines the genus “screwball comedy” which means a romantic comedy with at least some unlikely or absurd happenings in the middle of the mix. When Hatch was asked (in the same 1938 interview) about the vogue for screwball comedies that was then taking place, he said “Godfrey, to me, was never a crazy picture. Godfrey was a pretty serious man, and comedy, in my opinion, must have a certain serious touch if it’s going to amount to anything.” This is a comedy film with something of a social conscience, and it is that combination that makes it the great picture that it is.