Games With Human Beings as Objects
The opening of My Man Godfrey constitutes a little movie in itself — a perfectly balanced mixture of satire, wit, anger, and glamour that may be the greatest single scene in 1930s cinema. It starts with the credits, which are integral to its meaning. We see the Manhattan skyline at night, and to a fanfare the names of the cast and crew light up in neon signs that flash on and off, reflected in the East River below. The camera pans across buildings that slowly become less grand, more industrial, more forgotten and squalid, and finally it comes to rest at the city dump underneath the end of the Queensboro Bridge. The brash music subsides into the first few plaintive notes of the Depression anthem “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” The camera moves in and we see a lonely shanty, a hobo tending a fire, a dog sniffing through the trash. A dump truck backs up and adds more garbage to the pile, a cascade of cans and rubbish that glitter like diamonds in the moonlight. And then we see him. The hobo tending the fire, we discover, is William Powell.
Even today, it’s a bit of a shock to see this actor playing a bum. Powell, the epitome of class, the man about town who wore clothes beautifully, smoked and drank cocktails with peerless elegance, and spoke with impeccable clipped diction. With one twitch of his pencil-line moustache, William Powell could register infinite degrees of skepticism and wry sophistication. And here he is, bearded and shabby, speaking in a low, hushed, defeated tone of voice. He trades a few bitter observations with another bum as a couple of snazzy cars pull up at the edge of the dump. Three well-dressed people rush out: two women and a man. The women are sisters, played by raven-haired Gail Patrick and blonde Carole Lombard. The darker one, Patrick, gets to Powell first. How’d you like to make five dollars? she asks. Powell doesn’t quite get it. Brusquely, she offers the money again and tells him all he has to do for it is go with her to the Waldorf Ritz hotel where she’ll show him off to some people. She’s on a scavenger hunt and her next item is a Forgotten Man — the evocative, accusatory Depression-era term for a homeless person. Do you want the money or don’t you? she snaps at him. That’s enough. He advances on her with barely controlled aggression, his voice quiet but vibrating with resentment. She falls back and lands on her ass, then runs off in fear with her escort. Powell, still furious, strides in the other direction and runs smack into the blonde.
Her name is Irene, she tells him, and that was her sister Cornelia and she’s always wanted to do what he just did — push Cornelia into a pile of ashes. He offers to push her in too, and now she’s the one to decline the offer, but not angrily. She’s a ditz, rattling off disconnected observations and thoughts a mile a minute. The moonlight illuminating her fluffy head of hair and shimmering satin gown, she’s like an angel come to rest on the dump. Powell’s irritation turns to curiosity. Would you mind telling me just what a scavenger hunt is? he asks. She takes a deep breath. “Well, a scavenger hunt is exactly like a treasure hunt, except in a treasure hunt you try to find something you want and in a scavenger hunt you try to find something you don’t want.” Like a Forgotten Man, he says. “That’s right, and the one who wins gets a prize, only there really isn’t any prize, it’s just the honor of winning, because all the money goes to charity, that is if there’s any money left over, but then there never is.”
With this and her other long screwball speeches in this movie, Lombard plays a subtle trick, her voice trailing off at the end as her character becomes vaguely aware that something is wrong. It isn’t that she’s dumb. She’s infantile. She has grown up in a bubble, insulated from the world by her wealth. Ease and luxury have stunted and stupefied her. Confronted with Powell’s steady gaze, her voice begins to wobble and her scattered attention focuses on him, like a baby seeing its parent and calming down. So they sit and talk, the rich girl and the bum becoming interested in each other. It even makes her philosophical. “You know,” she says, “I’ve decided I don’t want to play any more games with human beings as objects. It’s kind of sordid when you think of it, I mean when you think it over.”
This little quip goes by in a flash, but it’s amazing when you think of it. I mean when you think it over. Like the whole scene, it expresses a bristling sense of moral outrage. The Forgotten Men come out of the shadows after Powell threatens to punch Cornelia’s top-hatted escort, asking if he needs any help. They’re a little society, watching out for each other, keeping their dignity despite being literally at the bottom of the heap. In an era and an industry in which conservative values dominated (don’t they always?), here is a full-throated cry of humanism and populism. The movie makes us vaguely, uncomfortably aware that we’re tourists, just like the three rich people. We’re drawn to Powell by his toughness, his intelligence, and his irony, but we’re also a little appalled. He looks like shit. He lives on a garbage heap. How did he get here? And how can he — and we — get out?
The rest of the movie is the answer to those questions, and it’s not an entirely satisfying answer. Lombard takes Powell back to the scavenger hunt, wins the prize, and hires him to be her family’s butler in their Park Avenue mansion. It’s a screwball comedy out of P.G. Wodehouse: the level-headed servant civilizes the house full of wacky rich people, and the boy and girl fall in love. Although the rich are satirized and vilified, and the value of good honest work is celebrated, the movie can’t sustain the brilliance of its beginning. It’s well acted by a team of expert farceurs including Eugene Pallette, Alice Brady, and Mischa Auer. It looks great, with its sleek art deco sets and sparkling cinematography by Ted Tetzlaff. And it sounds great, with its flow of wisecracks by Marx Brothers writer Morrie Ryskind, but in the attempt to create a box-office romance, something goes awry with the plot. We learn that Godfrey, Powell’s character, is actually from a wealthy family himself, but a broken love affair left him devastated and he fell into poverty and homelessness because he didn’t care what happened.
This is a major letdown — we’re supposed to be soothed by this reassurance that Powell is “respectable,” but in fact we were much more on his side when he was a bitter bum of ambiguous origins. The romance between Godfrey and Irene works only because Powell and Lombard, real life ex-spouses and good friends, have genuine chemistry. Unlike most comedies of its era, in this movie the man is much smarter than the woman, and just like in real life, that’s not very romantic or particularly funny. On Park Avenue, the movie is pleasant and enjoyably proficient, but back on the city dump it was, briefly, extraordinary.