A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
When Carole Lombard and the family maid discuss the newly hired butler, we can read her mind when she says, "I'd like to sew his buttons on sometime, when they come off." In 1936, when elegant men's formalwear didn't use zippers, audiences must have had an even better idea of what she was thinking. The two women both have crushes on Godfrey (William Powell), a homeless man who Lombard, competing in a scavenger hunt, discovers living at the city dump. Lombard wins the hunt by producing Godfrey at a society ball and then, during an argument with her bitchy sister and loony mother, hires him to be the butler for her rich family. "Do you buttle?" she asks him, so crisply and directly that she could mean anything, or everything. Her romantic obsession is hopeless because Godfrey has transformed himself overnight from an unshaven bum into a polished, sophisticated man who prides himself on his proper behavior. When she grabs him and kisses him, he regards her with utter astonishment.
"My Man Godfrey," one of the treasures of 1930s screwball comedy, doesn't merely use Lombard and Powell, it loves them. She plays Irene, a petulant kid who wants what she wants when she wants it. His Godfrey employs an attentive posture and a deep, precise voice that bespeaks an exact measurement of the situation he finds himself in. These two actors, who were briefly married (1931-33) before the film was made in 1936, embody personal style in a way that is (to use a cliché that I mean sincerely) effortlessly magical. Consider Powell, best known for the "Thin Man" movies. How can such reserve suggest such depths of feeling? How can understatement and a cool, dry delivery embody such passion? You can never, ever catch him trying to capture effects. They come to him. And Lombard in this film has a dreamy, ditzy breathlessness that shows her sweetly yearning after this man who fascinated her even when she thought he really was a bum.
Like Preston Sturges' "Sullivan's Travels" (1941), Gregory La Cava's "My Man Godfrey" contrasts the poverty of "forgotten men" during the Depression with the spoiled lifestyles of the idle rich. The family Irene brings Godfrey home to buttle for is the Bullocks, all obliviously nuts. Her father, Alexander (that gravel-voiced character actor of genius, Eugene Pallette), is a rich man, secretly broke, who addresses his spendthrift family in tones of disbelief ("In prison, at least I'd find some peace"). Her mother, Angelica (Alice Brady), pampers herself with unabashed luxury and even maintains a "protégé" (Mischa Auer) whose duties involve declaiming great literature, playing the piano, leaping about the room like a gorilla and gobbling up second helpings at every meal. Her sister Cornelia (Gail Patrick) is bitter because she not only lost the scavenger hunt but got pushed into an ash heap after insulting Godfrey. And there is the maid, Molly (Jean Dixon), who briefs Godfrey on the insane world he is entering. She loves Godfrey, too, and perhaps down deep so does Cornelia, and so might the protégé, if he didn't like chicken legs more.
Godfrey buttles flawlessly, bringing Alexander his martinis a tray at a time, whipping up hors d'oeuvres in the kitchen and keeping his secret. He has one. Unmasked by a Harvard classmate at a party, he turns out to be born rich but down on his fortune after an unhappy romance. The Bullocks never figure out he's too good to be a butler (or a bum) because they're all blinded by their own selfishness, except for Irene, who dreams of his buttons. Under the surface, emotion is churning. Godfrey, having come to like and admire his fellow hobos at the dump, is offended that the Bullocks flaunt their wealth so uselessly, and that leads to one of those outcomes so beloved in screwball comedy, so impossible in life.