Film review: My Man Godfrey


I saw the 1936 black-and-white comedy My Man Godfrey over the weekend and really liked it. I hadn’t expected to because it seemed to be about the high life of a very rich but eccentric family indulging in endless rounds of vapid partying in the post-1929 crash period. I watched it out of solidarity with my visiting daughter who has developed a taste for classic films and discovered that the film was not only funny, it had a pretty good social message too.

It stars William Powell as the well-educated scion of a wealthy Boston family who, for mysterious and unexplained reasons that are not necessary for the story, ends up as a drunk living in the New York city dump with all the other people who were thrown out of work following the crash. One night, two sisters come with their escorts to the dump to find ‘a forgotten man’ in order to complete the scavenger list for a game at a swanky party they are attending at a ritzy hotel. Initially offended by being seen as a mere object by the rich, Powell then consents to be so used out of curiosity, and ends up being hired to be the butler in the women’s household, where no one knows the mysterious past of this remarkably well-spoken derelict. His background is almost exposed when a former classmate of his at Harvard recognizes him at a house party.

The film uses Powell to contrast the shallowness and frivolousness of the rich with the sterling qualities and camaraderie of his fellow residents in the dump, with him saying at one point that “The only difference between a derelict and a man is a job.”

Here’s the trailer:

One of the things that struck me in the film is the total absence of any people of color. There were none living in the dump, there were none as servants in the house, there were none as the wait staff in the hotels. I became curious. Was this simply because filmmakers did not want to use black people? Or were black people really absent from city life at that time?

Comments

  1. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    It’s worth noting that Godfrey has to be ‘the well-educated scion of a wealthy Boston family’ rather than an ordinary member of the working-class, though. Even if he doesn’t get rescued, Godfrey can always go back to the family fortune. You couldn’t imagine Godfrey singing ‘Buddy,can you spare a dime.’
    Some film-makers used black people in their films- usually as servants; black people weren’t often allowed to play other roles- at the time and pushed the roles as far as they could. In this film, Godfrey is a servant too, so including black servants would have complicated things and made it a much less light comedy. People might have had to think…

  2. coragyps says

    Black people, or colored folks in those days, were rarely called on to act in Real Hollywood Films, unless the film was Gone With the Wind or some similar epic where their presence was a necessary part of the plot. I would imagine that there may even have been Colored Only dumps back before 1960 – there were certainly, in my memory, water fountains and restrooms like that.

    As for other people of color, the only “orientals” in movies up into the 40’s or later were either villians or semi-comic “others” like Charlie Chan and his goofy “#1 son.” American Indians were as likely to be played by Anglos with chiseled features and tan make-up as by American Indians. You have no idea, Mano, how far we’ve come in the 55 years or so that I have been old enough to notice. And I’m a white boy, and not even from the Deep South.

  3. Francisco Bacopa says

    Carole Lombard? I’m there dude. It’s a shame she died so soon after she hit it big.

  4. clamboy says

    I’m with Francisco Bacopa. Your misgivings about the film are well-founded, and this earth denuded of people of color, while perhaps not surprising, is obscene. But Carole Lombard’s performance is stellar! Her goth-like morose, for instance, and of course the shower scene is a brilliant bit. “Godfrey loves me! He put me in the shower!” And then there’s Carlo, an interesting character to say the least – who he is, what he implies, etc. Okay, I admit it: I have great fondness for this movie.

  5. Beauzeaux says

    You will see SOME Black folk in Hollywood movies. Always as servants, shoe shiners, etc. No Black bellmen though. Beyond that, there couldn’t be a black character without a “story” to explain why they were in the foreground (it was usually to be a clown). Some of the great musicals of the 30s and 40s featured Black performers — but only as perfromers, not as characters.

  6. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    @1 has it correct … if William Powell had not been playing the lead as a servant, there might have been black servants. But they couldn’t give him a co-servant without getting across the well-known line of what white actors do and what black actors do.

    Hollywood has never been known for being realistic. Pull up the 1930 and 1940 census for New York and check the expensive areas. There are plenty of servants and some of them are black.

  7. smrnda says

    Not only are people of color often absent from old films, but often white actors with make-up were used rather than people who actually matched the race of characters.

  8. HP says

    It’s all down to profit. Theaters in Jim Crow states would often refuse to screen films with interracial casts, especially if blacks were shown as equal in status to whites (as you’d find in a hobo camp). If Hollywood had made films that accurately showed the racial makeup of the country, then they’d be kissing half their box office receipts goodbye.

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