In the depths of the Depression, a party game brings dizzy socialite Irene Bullock to the city dump where she meets Godfrey, a derelict, and ends by hiring him as family butler. He finds the Bullocks to be the epitome of idle rich, and nutty as the proverbial fruitcake. Soon, the dramatizing Irene is in love with her 'protege'...who feels strongly that a romance between servant and employer is out of place, regardless of that servant's mysterious past...
#23 on reviewer Joshua Starnes' top 100 movies of all-time list, My Man Godfrey is a 1936 slapstick comedy with a lot of essence and complexity.
I have to admit I never saw, much less ever heard of, My Man Godfrey until I was putting up Starnes' list on this website. It's just a film that didn't hit on my radar until now.
So right after I put up Joshua's list, I headed out to the video store (if you're reading this after 2010, there used to be stores where you'd rent videos/discs of movies and bring them home to watch) and picked up this 1936 classic to see why he put it so high on the list of greatest films of all-time.
I was surprisingly happy with My Man Godfrey as the film is basically a dialogue version of a Charlie Chaplin's silent films. All of Chaplin's films lead with funny antics of The Tramp's journeys of conflicts as he's after either money, food, shelter or a love interest. But underneath all of the comedy and slapstick charm is the underlying theme of the social divide between the rich and poor. And in every film the rich are portrayed as either dimwits, crazies, drunks and/or extremely eccentric. While the poor are portrayed as level headed while being filled with inner conflict because they are poor and usually need something in order to survive.
Of course, in the real world this isn't that black and white. There are eccentric poor people just as much as the rich, and level headed rich people just as much as the poor. But in order to make their point plus add a lot of comedy to the mix, Chaplin and the sound version of his movies, My Man Godfrey, deal with black and white extremes.
My Man Godfrey does fit to the 21st century personality much better than Chaplin's silent films do because there is dialogue and conversations that are as real in 1936 than they are today. Human beings to evolve decade to decade but our emotional core has always remains the same. We will probably always have feelings of insecurity, fear, anger and of course love in our souls even 1000 years from now. And that's why most great films stand the test of time. Which My Man Godfrey does and probably will even 200 years after the film was made.
You can learn a lot when watching My Man Godfrey if you are deciding to write a comedy movie. Funny is funny and if you can make people laugh then you're already way ahead of the game. But what makes something really funny and memorable is comedy with insight. In every scene in this film when you laugh you also can't help but think about the subtext to that humorous scene as well.
Take the opening scene of the film when two eccentric rich sisters go to the city dump to attempt to pick up a "Forgotten Man" for their high society party game. The "Forgotten Man" Godfrey dumps the snotty sister into a pile of ashes, without ever touching her, after she offends him and every other homeless person to boot. It's a funny scene filled with great performances of comedic acting, but there is a larger purpose and point to the homeless man putting the spoiled girl in the place she probably deserves to be.
And on and on each scene goes as we laugh and ponder at the same time. Not to sound jerky, but when's the last time you had that in an Adam Sandler film?
Another great thing about My Man Godfrey is its ability to really let each scene and moment breath. Most films today seem to cut a half of a second after an emotional story beat happens. We move onto the next scene without really realizing what took place just seconds before. So what happens is that the pace is very quick but we lose any sort of emotional connections with the characters on screen.
Some will contradict my point by saying that audiences are smarter now and a lot of the older movies are boring because the pace is so slow. Perhaps they are right but I do believe that there is a compromise of sorts needed with the old way and the new way. We do need to feel what's really happening before we move on but perhaps not as long as they did before.
All in all, My Man Godfrey was a pure joy to watch. I'm a better man and storyteller for having seen it.