The Quarantine Stream: 'My Man Godfrey' Is A Winning Screwball Comedy With A Conscience

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they've been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)The MovieMy Man GodfreyWhere You Can Stream It: Amazon PrimeThe Pitch: William Powell plays the titular Godfrey, a "forgotten man" living in a dump on the East River who is recruited by Fifth Avenue socialite Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) for a scavenger hunt before he's subsequently hired by the eccentric heiress to be the latest butler for her unruly family. But things quickly go awry thanks to Irene's vengeful sister, Irene's budding affections for Godfrey, and a family secret that Godfrey has been harboring.Why It's Essential Viewing: Classic screwball comedies can usually get away with a fun premise and the sparkling chemistry of their two sharp-tongued leads, and just that. My Man Godfrey certainly has that in spades — Powell and Lombard were briefly married a few years before the film, and their natural affection and antagonism shines through the screen. But what sets My Man Godfrey apart from its screwball counterparts is an unusually sharp social conscience. Gregory La Cava's 1936 comedy deftly taps into Depression-related anxieties, while sneaking in some biting social satire about the frivolous upper class.

The premise of My Man Godfrey is embedded deep in Depression-era issues: the "forgotten man" was a commonly used term for those at the bottom of the social ladder, often veterans of World War I who ended up homeless and living in Hoovervilles. Powell's down-on-his-luck homeless man appears to fit this mold when Lombard's flighty heiress Irene stumbles upon him while she and her sister are looking for a "forgotten man" for their scavenger hunt. But Godfrey is insulted by the blasé attitude of Irene's sister Cornelia (Gail Patrick), who offers him a measly few dollars to humiliate himself for a crowd of bored rich folks, pushing her into a pile of nearby ashes. Irene is delighted by this display of apathy toward her sister and befriends Godfrey before offering him a job as the family butler. This seems to set up a classic Pygmalion situation (oh how funny, a poor man has to be taught manners to serve the rich!) but My Man Godfrey upends the expectations for where this kind of screwball comedy would go. Instead, it turns the camera and the jokes on the rich Bullock family, an unhinged group of socialites whose erratic natures have caused many past butlers to flee and have nearly emptied the beleaguered father's coffers.

Given a new suit and a fresh shave, Godfrey proves himself to be a surprisingly adept butler, smoothly navigating the family's eccentricities — from the air-headed and frequently hungover mother, to the spoiled Cornelia, and the capricious Irene. Even a vindictive Irene, who tries her best to get him fired after holding a grudge over their initial encounter, can't trip him up. But it's the increasingly obvious affections of Irene, who becomes hilariously lovesick over the butler (in a spectacularly outlandish performance from Lombard, who feels like a screwball heroine on speed in this movie) that starts to prove troublesome for Godfrey, who is trying desperately to keep his new employers' at an arm's length to prevent them from finding out his secret past.

So many screwball comedies are content to skate by on a wacky premise and rapid-fire banter exchanged by two glamorous leads before things start to fizzle out by the third act. But My Man Godfrey manages to maintain its nutty momentum with its pointed social satire and several unexpected narrative twists. While everything does get wrapped up a little too neatly in typical Hollywood fashion, My Man Godfrey is the rare screwball comedy that doesn't value escapism over reality. Best yet, it will convince you that William Powell is devastatingly hot.