The Fabulous Forties #39: My Man Godfrey (dir by Gregory La Cava)


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The 38th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was My Man Godfrey, which is strange considering that My Man Godfrey is not a 40s film.  The back of the box insists that My Man Godfrey was made in 1946 but it was actually made in 1936.  Errors like this aren’t uncommon when it comes to Mill Creek but, even beyond that simple mistake, My Man Godfrey is clearly not a product of the earnest and pro-American 1940s.  My Man Godfrey may be a screwball comedy but it’s a comedy that is very much a product of the far more cynical 1930s.  It’s a comedy that could only have come out during the Great Depression, at a time when FDR was promoting his New Deal and yet many Americans were still out-of-work and struggling to make ends meet, forgotten by a country determined to buy into a feel good narrative regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

But no matter!  My Man Godfrey might not technically belong in the Fabulous Forties box set but I’m still glad that it was there because it is an absolutely fantastic film.

The Godfrey of the title is played by the always charming and always funny William Powell.  When we first see him, he’s living in a garbage dump with several other men who have lost their money, homes, and family.  These are men who spend their time wondering when and if things are ever going to get better.  While the rest of the country insists that happy days are here again, these men know it’s simply not true.  They are truly the forgotten men.

Fortunately, there’s also a scavenger hunt going on!

For charity, a group of rich people are running around the city and collecting various oddities.  And among those oddities — “a forgotten man!”  When wealthy and snobbish Cornelia Bullock (Gail Patrick) stops off at the dump, she offers Godfrey five dollars to come with her and be her “forgotten man.”  Offended, Godfrey reprimands her and a shocked Cornelia stumbles back and falls into an ash pile.  Cornelia’s younger sister, the flighty Irene (Carole Lombard), sees this and laughs.  Mostly to get back at Cornelia, Godfrey agrees to be Irene’s forgotten man.

When Irene takes Godfrey to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel so that the game’s organizers can declare him to be an authentic forgotten man, Godfrey is disgusted by the silly and wealthy people that he sees around him.  After he is authenticated, Godfrey proceeds to loudly denounce everyone in the hotel.  Every one is scandalized, except for Irene.  Irene asks Godfrey if he would like to come home with her and be her family’s new butler.  Reluctant but broke, Godfrey agrees.

One of the joys of this scene is seeing the other things people found during the scavenger hunt. Love the monkey.

One of the joys of this scene is seeing the other things people found during the scavenger hunt. Love the monkey.

Godfrey, however, is far less amused.

Godfrey, however, is far less amused.

The next morning finds Godfrey in the Bullock mansion, prepared to start his duties as a butler.  He turns out to be a surprisingly adept butler but there’s only one problem.  It turns out that everyone was drunk last night and, as a result, nobody remembers Irene hiring Godfrey.  As Godfrey reintroduced himself to the family, he gets to once again know the Bullocks.

For instance, patriarch Alexander Bullock (Eugene Pallette) is a well-meaning man but he’s incapable of controlling his eccentric family or their excessive spending.  He faces each day with the weary resignation that his household is a disorganized mess and that he’s on the verge of losing his business.

Alexander’s wife, Angelica (Alice Brady), lives in her own world and confronts every problem with nonstop and delusional positivity.  She is very excited to have taken on a protegé, an artist named Carlo (Mischa Auer, who was justifiably nominated for an Oscar for his wonderfully odd performance).  Carlo is often surly and spoiled but he does do a pretty good impersonation of a gorilla.  Whenever the often dramatic Irene is declaring herself to be the most miserable rich girl in the world, Angelica insists that Carlo cheer everyone up by grunting and jumping around the room.

Mischa Auer as Carlo

Mischa Auer as Carlo

Mischa Auer as a gorilla

Mischa Auer as a gorilla

(Apparently, the gorilla impersonation was something that Auer used to do at Hollywood parties.  The role of Carlo was specifically created with the idea of capturing Auer’s act on film.  As a result, Auer was one of the first actors to ever be nominated for Best Supporting Actor and he started a new career as a comedic character actor.)

Cornelia is selfish and materialistic.  Though she may not remember much about the scavenger hunt, she does remember Godfrey humiliating her.  From the minute she discovers that Godfrey is the new butler, she starts to conspire against him.  When her necklace disappears, everyone is sure that she hid it herself just to frame Godfrey.  The truth, of course, is a little bit more complicated.

And finally, there’s Irene.  Irene is spoiled but she’s not selfish.  She’s also not as ditzy as everyone assumes.  It’s just that she sees the world in her own unique way.  Almost as soon as Irene remembers that she hired Godrey, she decides that she’s in love with him.  She also decides that Godfrey is her protegé.  After all, if her mother can have a protegé, why can’t she!?

Carole Lombard and William Powell

Carole Lombard and William Powell

Carole Lombard was a masterful comedienne whose career was tragically cut short when she was killed in a plane crash in 1942.  Lombard is absolutely adorable in the role of Irene, a character to whom I very much related.

Of course, there is more to Godfrey and his past than he actually let on.   And, even after he becomes the new butler, Godfrey doesn’t forget where he was living just a few days before.  My Man Godfrey is a hilarious comedy but it’s also a comedy with a social conscience.

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I love this film.  It’s a screwball comedy in the best sense of the term, a film where all of the characters are eccentric while also remaining human.  William Powell and Carole Lombard were briefly married before they teamed up in My Man Godfrey and their chemistry is delightful to watch.  Finally, the supporting cast is memorable in the way that only a collection of great 1930s character actors can be.

My Man Godfrey is a great film.  It may not be from the 1940s but I’m glad it was included.

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(By the way, just between you and me — I had a lot of fun watching this movie and writing this review.  It kind of reminded me why I started writing about movies in the first place.)

The Fabulous Forties #35: That Uncertain Feeling (dir by Ernst Lubitsch)


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The 35th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was — wait a minute?  I’m on my 35th Fabulous Forties review?  Let’s see — there’s 50 films in the box set so that means that I only have 15 more of these to write and I’ll be done!  And then I can move onto the Nifty Fifties, the Sensation Sixties, the Swinging Seventies, and the Excellent Eighties!  YAY!

Anyway, where was I?

Oh yeah, the 35th film.

First released in 1941, That Uncertain Feeling is a movie about sophisticated people doing silly things.  Socialite Jill Baker (Merle Oberon) gets the hiccups whenever she gets nervous or irritated.  Her trendy friends suggest that she try the new big thing: seeing a psychoanalyst!  At first, Jill is reluctant but eventually, she gives in to the pressures of high society and she goes to visit Dr. Vengard (Alan Mowbray).  Dr. Vengard tells her that her hiccups are a result of her marriage to Larry (Melvyn Douglas) and suggests that the best way to cure them would be to get a divorce.

At first, Jill is horrified at the suggestion.  Whatever will people think if she gets a divorce!?  However, Larry is kind of a condescending jerk.  (Or, at least, he comes across as being a jerk when viewed by 2016 standards.  By 1941 standards, I imagine he’s supposed to be quite reasonable.)  And Jill happens to meet another one of Vengard’s patients, an outspoken pianist named Alexander Sebastian (Burgess Meredith).

Soon, Jill is not only contemplating getting a divorce from Larry but perhaps marrying the eccentric Sebastian as well!  When Larry realizes that Jill is dissatisfied with their marriage and that she is attracted to Sebastian, he gives her a divorce.  He even pretends to be an abusive husband so that she can file for divorce on grounds of cruelty.  (It’s funnier than it sounds.)  Jill and Sebastian get engaged but, once Larry starts to date again, Jill realizes that she’s not quite over her ex…

I was really excited when I saw that The Uncertain Feeling was an Ernst Lubitsch film.  Lubitsch directed some of my favorite Golden Age comedies, films like Ninotchka and Heaven Can Wait.  But That Uncertain Feeling is not quite up to the standard of the other Lubitsch films that I’ve seen.  As played by Burgess Meredith, Sebastian never comes across as being a realistic rival to Larry.  The character is so cartoonishly eccentric that it becomes impossible to see what Jill sees in him.  At the same time, Larry comes across as being such a chauvinist that it’s far easier to understand why Jill would divorce him than why she would ever want to take him back.  The end result is a rare Lubitsch misfire.

However, as long as we’re talking about Lubitsch, make sure to see The Smiling Lieutenant if you get the chance.  Now, that’s a good Lubitsch film…

(And be sure to follow it up with The Love Parade...)

Cleaning Out The DVR #5: Around The World In 80 Days (dir by Michael Anderson)


Last night, as a part of my effort to clean out my DVR by watching and reviewing 38 movies in 10 days, I watched the 1956 Best Picture winner, Around The World In 80 Days.

Based on a novel by Jules Verne, Around The World In 80 Days announces, from the start, that it’s going to be a spectacle.  Before it even begins telling its story, it gives us a lengthy prologue in which Edward R. Murrow discusses the importance of the movies and Jules Verne.  He also shows and narrates footage from Georges Méliès’s A Trip To The Moon.  Seen today, the most interesting thing about the prologue (outside of A Trip To The Moon) is the fact that Edward R. Murrow comes across as being such a pompous windbag.  Take that, Goodnight and Good Luck.

Once we finally get done with Murrow assuring us that we’re about to see something incredibly important, we get down to the actual film.  In 1872, an English gentleman named Phileas Fogg (played by David Niven) goes to London’s Reform Club and announces that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days.  Four other members of the club bet him 20,000 pounds that he cannot.  Fogg takes them up on their wager and soon, he and his valet, Passepartout (Cantinflas) are racing across the world.

Around The World in 80 Days is basically a travelogue, following Fogg and Passepartout as they stop in various countries and have various Technicolor adventures.  If you’re looking for a serious examination of different cultures, this is not the film to watch.  Despite the pompousness of Murrow’s introduction, this is a pure adventure film and not meant to be taken as much more than pure entertainment.  When Fogg and Passepartout land in Spain, it means flamenco dancing and bullfighting.  When they travel to the U.S., it means cowboys and Indians.  When they stop off in India, it means that they have to rescue Princess Aouda (Shirley MacClaine!!!) from being sacrificed.  Aouda ends up joining them for the rest of their journey.

Also following them is Insepctor Fix (Robert Newton), who is convinced that Fogg is a bank robber.  Fix follows them across the world, just waiting for his chance to arrest Fogg and disrupt his race across the globe.

But it’s not just Inspector Fix who is on the look out for the world travelers.  Around The World In 80 Days is full of cameos, with every valet, sailor, policeman, and innocent bystander played by a celebrity.  (If the movie were made today, Kim Kardashian and Chelsea Handler would show up at the bullfight.)  I watch a lot of old movies so I recognized some of the star cameos.  For instance, it was impossible not to notice Marlene Dietrich hanging out in the old west saloon, Frank Sinatra playing piano or Peter Lorre wandering around the cruise ship.  But I have to admit that I missed quite a few of the cameos, much as how a viewer 60 years in the future probably wouldn’t recognize Kim K or Chelsea Handler in our hypothetical 2016 remake.  However, I could tell whenever someone famous showed up on screen because the camera would often linger on them and the celeb would often look straight at the audience with a “It’s me!” look on their face.

Around The World in 80 Days is usually dismissed as one of the lesser best picture winners and it’s true that it is an extremely long movie, one which doesn’t necessarily add up to much beyond David Niven, Cantinflas, and the celeb cameos.  But, while it may not be Oscar worthy, it is a likable movie.  David Niven is always fun to watch and he and Cantinflas have a nice rapport.  Shirley MacClaine is not exactly believable as an Indian princess but it’s still interesting to see her when she was young and just starting her film career.

Add to that, Around The World In 80 Days features Jose Greco in this scene:

Around The World In 80 Days may not rank with the greatest films ever made but it’s still an entertaining artifact of its time.  Whenever you sit through one of today’s multi-billion dollar cinematic spectacles, remember that you’re watching one of the descendants of Around The World In 80 Days.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #6: Berkeley Square (dir by Frank Lloyd)


Berkeley_Square_(1933,_Lobby_Card)For today’s final entry in Embracing the Melodrama Part II, we take a look at the 1933 film, Berkeley Square.

Berkeley Square opens in 1784.  An American named Peter Sandish (Leslie Howard) has come from New York to England.  Stopping off at an inn, he explains that he’s on his way to London.  He has distant relations who live in a mansion located in Berkeley Square and it’s been arranged that Peter is going to marry his cousin, Kate Pettigrew (Valerie Taylor).  As Standish talks, he’s interrupted by another man who excitedly announces that a Frenchman has flown across the English Channel in something called a “balloon.”

“It’s beginning,” Peter says, “A new age of speed and innovation…”

Suddenly, the film jumps forward over a hundred years.  In 1933, Standish’s descendant — also named Peter and also played by Leslie Howard — has inherited the family’s old house at Berkeley Square.  He’s spent several days locked away in the mansion, obsessively reading the first Peter’s diary and refusing to see his fiancée, Marjorie (Betty Lawford).

It turns out that Peter — much like Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris — is frustrated with the modern world and desperately wants to live in the past.  He believes that if he continues to stay in the house, he will eventually be transported back to 1784.  When a friend points out that, even if time travel was possible, Peter would end up changing the past, Peter explains that he’s memorized the first Peter’s diary and, therefore, he knows everything that he needs to say and do.

And then, one night, Peter suddenly does find himself in 1784.  Having taken his ancestor’s place, he meets the Pettigrews, makes plans to marry Kate, and attempts to adapt to 18th century London society.

Unfortunately, this turns out to be not as easy as he thought.  Despite his best efforts, Peter keeps using 1930s slang and alluding to events that will happen in the future.  At first, he explains away his habit of using modern phrases by saying that he’s using common New York expressions.  However, the increasingly suspicious Kate takes a list of Peter’s phrases to the U.S. Ambassador (who is none other than future President John Adams) and is informed that nobody in New York speaks that way.  As well, Peter’s insistence on regular bathing is viewed as odd by the members of upper class London society.  (“I heard he used three buckets of water,” someone accusingly whispers.)  Soon, Kate is convinced that Peter has been possessed by a demon.

An even bigger problem for Peter is that he’s not in love with Kate.  Instead, he’s fallen in love with Kate’s headstrong younger sister, Helen (Heather Angel).  When Helen discovers that Peter is from the future, Peter is forced to decide whether to continue to stay among the “living ghosts” or whether to return to his own time.

Berkeley Square shows on up on TCM fairly frequently and I absolutely love it.  To a certain extent, of course, this is because I’m a secret history nerd and there’s a part of me that will always wish that I could travel in time and experience the past firsthand.  (That said, after watching Berkeley Square, I don’t think I could handle 18th century hygiene.  Agck!)  But the main reason that I love Berkeley Square is because I love a good romance.  And this is such a romantic film!  Heather Angel and Leslie Howard have a really sweet and likable chemistry and, with his performance here, Howard shows why he would be the perfect choice to play the earnest, well-meaning, and ultimately tragic Ashley Wilkes in Gone With The Wind.

Keep an eye out for Berkeley Square.  You won’t be sorry.