Tuesday, February 16, 2010

#114: My Man Godfrey

(Gregory La Cava, 1936)

I obviously do not share the common view among people my age that any movie before The Godfather is an "old movie" and therefore uninteresting. However, one line of complaint that I have a hard time arguing is the negative depiction of women in films made before 1960. Women in these films are often shrill, highly emotional, and unreasonable, prone to crying and fainting at the slightest conflict (a notable exception to this rule, among many, is Rosalind Russel in the incomparable His Girl Friday; ironically, this role was written for a man in the original play).

I mention this after watching My Man Godfrey because the film features one of the all-time great hysterical female performances by Carole Lombard. One of the best female stars of the 30s, Lombard has seldom been matched by any of the screwball heroines that followed her (she died in a plane crash in 1942, while still very much in demand), and here she flops and stomps gracefully through scene after scene. This is the second time I've seen the film, and while I had always remembered it as a strong entry in the screwball category (and a film that flirts with the social commentary that would blossom in Criterion selection Sullivan's Travels), Lombard's performance was an extremely pleasant surprise. Instead of playing her character as the common flighty woman, the actress makes her seem real and unique, a character who has created her fits and tantrums not through the feminine stereotypes of manipulation and emotional immaturity, but through her own spoiled life experience, combined with a powerful personality that is at once off-putting and strangely appealing (something with which Powell's Godfrey obviously agrees).

The movie manages to delight in numerous other ways, from the smart-ass maid to the grumbling father, played by Eugene Pallette, one of my all-time favorite character actors. La Cava would never be mistaken for Sturges, or Lubitsch or Hawks, but sometimes a common Hollywood product like this comes off as effortlessly as the work by those masters (it happens less often now, of course). The fact that he has Powell and, especially, Lombard along for the ride only makes it that much more fun.

Side note: Any chance the horse in the library was an influence on the tiger in the bathroom in The Hangover?

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