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?