Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Cinema Style File--The Art (Deco) of Comedy in 1936's MY MAN GODFREY

Gregory La Cava's 1936 classic comedy My Man Godfrey is a movie I first caught on cable years ago in the middle of the night.  The aged and slightly faded film flickering in the darkness on some obscure channel did not dim its appeal.  In fact, I only remember how captivated I was from its opening until closing credits, and all of the magic in between.  Arguably, much of the movie's magic comes from Godfrey's leading man William Powell.  It was not the first time I had seen Powell on screen--my father, a police officer, is a fan of nearly everything film noir, so I had seen The Thin Man even as a child.  Needless to say I became a fan, too, particularly of Powell since he is spectacularly charming and models men's 1930s fashion so well whether it's double-breasted suits or white tie and tails.  The magic in My Man Godfrey also came from the rest of its cast and it was my introduction to Carole Lombard and all the other talented players in its ensemble--scene-stealing character actors such as Eugene Pallette, Alice Brady, Jean Dixon, and Alan Mowbray.  

As you can expect from any La Cava, the script is sophisticated and clever.  And with other films from the 1930s, it is eerie how relevant the story has become with our country's current challenges.  Powell plays Godfrey Park, a man who comes from the right family, went to the right school, and had the right job...yet his world would still come crashing down around him.  His wealthy Bostonian family and Harvard degree could not protect him from the Great Depression, and he gets hit so hard he becomes homeless...forced to live at the city dump down by New York's East River.  This is where and when we meet him, though through a quick turn of events Godfrey becomes a butler for the Bullocks on Park Avenue and the comedy begins.  Of course, the mere notion of this was funny...someone as sophisticated as Powell serving in such a position.  Yet, because of our own Great Recession today, this is sadly something that really can happen to the best of us.  Suddenly, there is much more depth to My Man Godfrey than one might is a comic and charming telling of a very relatable tale that teaches the rewards of resourcefulness, resilience, and ingenuity.

Godfrey's new employers, the Bullocks, seem made of money and have a couple of spoiled daughters who regularly behave very badly. The sultry Gail Patrick, as eldest daughter Cornelia, plays a rich b**** better than I think I've ever seen.  She is sly and subtle, and just happens to have incredible chemistry with can't keep your eyes off her.  And the loveable Carole Lombard, who plays sweeter sister Irene, brings her spirit and natural naivete to a girl we watch become a woman while falling in love for the first time. Interestingly, Powell and Lombard were once married in real life and remained good friends despite being divorced.  In fact, Powell only agreed to Godfrey if Carole--and not frontrunners Constance Bennett or Miriam Hopkins--could play the role of Irene.  The studios should thank him...their partnership is one of the greats on film.

As my Month (or so) of Art Deco comes to a close, My Man Godfrey is a movie that cannot be missed for the sheer sake of its style.  It has all the hallmarks of Deco design from the opening credits to the Big White Sets of the production.  But it is the costume design of the great Travis Banton that will really catch your eye.  He was the one who made Clara Bow the It girl of the 1920s, but even more importantly became synonymous with the style of the 1930s.  It was another case of timing matched with talent....his natural style was perfect for the era.  Glamorous yet often understated, slinky and body conscious, and using the finest of fabrications such as feathers and satin to dress his stars...women like Mae West, Claudette ColbertMarlene Dietrich, and Carole Lombard

As chief designer, Banton would most often be responsible for the leading ladies alone.  Thus, in Godfrey he created Carole's gowns and her many other looks.  He was blissfully indulgent in styling her socialite character Irene.  At one point, he has her waking up in a bedroom jacket made entirely of ostrich feathers.  In another, he plays on Deco's fascination with foreign intrigue in designing her exotic Asian-inspired pajamas.  And then of course there are gowns that are quintessential Banton, such as our introduction to Irene in a beaded bias-cut.  Though he also oversaw the rest of the production's costumes, everything else was really the work of his assistant--Edith Head.  Made very much in Banton's own style, it was she who was responsible for Gail Patrick's gowns and others' outfits in My Man Godfrey.  This was one of her first real shining moments of costume design on film, so it is great to appreciate these early moments in her illustrious career. 

With such sheer perfection in the script, art direction, cast, and costume design, it should come as no surprise that My Man Godfrey is among my Sentimental Favorite Films of all time.  I have watched it over and over again--an embarrassing number of times--and it is still just as entertaining as the first.  As I've mentioned before, the upcoming TCM Classic Film Festival will be celebrating both the work of Travis Banton and Deco design, so getting to know My Man Godfrey is a great way to ready yourself for all the movies that are now only a mere month away.  I, for one, cannot wait.  Let the magic begin.

Even as homeless Godfrey Park,
William Powell smokes a pipe and his sophistication shines through

Socialite Cornelia Bullock (Gail Patrick) arrives looking to find a "forgotten man"
wearing black fur-trimmed satin dress and matching cape

Younger sister Irene (Carole Lombard) watches in her exquisite Banton beaded dress and coat
as Cornelia propositions Godfrey to be part of a scavenger hunt at the Waldorf-Ritz

Godfrey's response is to push her into a "clean" pile of ashes,
but then later agrees to help sweet Irene beat Cornelia at her own game

Alexander Bullock (Eugene Pallette) watching the insane asylum of the idle rich
within the Great White Set of the Art Deco Ritz

Mrs. Angelica Bullock (Alice Brady) brings in a goat as part of the hunt
while wearing a stand up coat collar popular in the 1930s...this one looks to be ermine

The slinky beaded dress and matching coat for Carole 
are very indicative of Travis Banton and his style for her

And Gail Patrick wears a gown from Banton's assistant, Edith Head, 
who has clearly learned the style of the master

You can feel the heat in this moment on film between Powell and Patrick

Godfrey accepts a job from Irene as a butler for the Bullocks
and meets cynical but lovable maid Molly (Jean Dixon) his first day on the job

Job #1--enter Mrs. Bullock's masterpiece of a bedroom and cure her hangover

Jobs #2 and #3--try and deliver breakfast for the Bullock sisters...
Irene awakens in a jacket made of ostrich feathers yearning for a good heart-to-heart talk

Job #4--Try not to get mistaken for a lover leaving Irene's bedroom by Mr. Bullock

First night on the job brings trouble in the form of a threat from Cornelia
who remembers being pushed into an ash pile well

Carole arrives in Asian-inspired pajamas from Banton
and Gail slinks around in this satin gown with split longsleeves from Head

Even Alice looks incredible in this cut out gown with a deeeeep back, 
a look likely from the design mind of Edith Head

A party demands a change of clothing for the girls, and 
Irene attempts drama in both her manner and her black and sheer gown

Start of the party brings wealthy family friend Tommy Gray (Alan Mowbray)

Turns out that Tommy knows Godfrey, too...from Harvard

Look at the girls' gowns as they react to Tommy's news--Cornelia ironically in innocent white lace
and Irene in black mourning the loss of Godfrey's attention

Though overly decorative for me, this is still a great short jacket for Mrs. Bullock
that gets paired with her somewhat matching dress

Godfrey and Tommy meet for drinks and we finally see him in an elegant suit and striped tie

But Cornelia crashes the reunion and once again attempts to threaten Godfrey...
I happen to be blinded by those Art Deco bracelets

She may be bad, but Cornelia looks divine in this fitted two piece suit
with its enormous 1930s style fur collar as she attempts to set up Godfrey

At dinner, Cornelia suddenly shares she's lost a valuable pearl necklace

While Mr. Bullock has his suspicions, Cornelia encourages the police to search Godfrey's room

Much to her surprise, no pearl necklace can be found...anywhere

Fashion is always cyclical and this dress on Carole 
is a great example of how the 1930s influenced design in the 1970s

Godfrey shares his ideas and the venture capital he has raised with Tommy Gray
to develop a club and put his unemployed friends to work at The Dump

Powell seeming more and more like himself through luxurious double-breasted suits

High fashion on the Great White Set of the Bullocks' living room

Irene's romantic feelings are expressed through her floral silk loungewear

Dramatic as always, Evil Queen Cornelia once again threatens in elaborate gold lame
while Godfrey resists in white tie and tails

Irene arrives in time to stop anything from happening in this bias-cut chiffon with fabric flowers

Irene feigns a faint but Godfrey quickly catches on

When he throws her into a cold shower out of frustration, 
Irene is elated and believes she's finally found proof Godfrey loves her

Unfortunately, bad news comes for the Bullocks...
they are going bankrupt just like so many others and may even face criminal charges

But because of the gratitude he felt for this family that helped by taking him in,
Godfrey had been secretly buying up shares of Bullocks' stock to save them 

Cornelia is perhaps most moved out of them all, 
especially when Godfrey empathetically expresses how much he understands her

Irene arrives too late and finds Godfrey gone and everyone, including Cornelia, crying

Art Deco's Streamline Moderne set design for Godfrey's business venture The Dump 

Irene finally tracks Godfrey down

Godfrey's office is only part of a small apartment behind The Dump
where Irene has decided they will live... man and wife who live happily ever after


Marline said...

This is obviously a labor of love, Kimberly...great insights and fun captions for wonderful screen caps. I'm glad you've scoped out which of these gowns are Edith's...that's terrific info! I simply adore Gail Patrick's fur-collared suit...and her floral print dresses. So many iconic 30's looks. Oddly enough, I also saw this first in a bout of insomnia and loved it from front to back. Excellent job, my friend!

Melissa Clark said...

This is my favorite William Powell role, even more than Nick Charles. Powell's portrayal of Godfrey is witty, intelligent, and downright sexy. No wonder Lombard's dizzy Irene couldn't resist him!

Work's been crazy lately and I've been terrible about commenting, but I've so enjoyed your posts on Art Deco style. To me that era is the most unabashedly glamorous and sophisticated and you've definitely done it justice on your blog! :)


Kimberly Truhler said...

Thank you, Kay, I do truly love this movie. It's just one of those pictures that is special to me. It was fascinating for me to learn how much Edith did on this particular picture...what a revelation! Wow. And yes, this movie is a great encapsulation of what 30s style is all about, whether it's those coat collars, those bias-cut gowns, or that suit of Gail's that I am mad for as well. Quite the coincidence that we should both be introduced to this movie during a restless night of sleep! lol Thanks as always for your comments. :)

Kimberly Truhler said...

Well hello Melissa! So great to hear from you. And don't you worry...I totally understand a hectic work schedule and appreciate whenever you're able to offer your feedback. :) Glad to hear that you've been enjoying the images from the Art Deco series. That's wonderful! One great thing about doing GlamAmor is that although I already know a lot about these eras, movies, and styles, the blog allows me the opportunity to educate myself even more and delve even deeper into it all. It's such a joy and the Month (or so) of Art Deco has really been like that for me.

And I totally agree about GODFREY...Powell is SEXY in this movie, isn't he? It's particularly so in the beginning of the movie when he's all scruffy and he has those moments with Gail Patrick...WOW.

Hope you're doing well (despite being a bit overworked) and are enjoying the start to spring! Again, great to hear from you.

Melissa Clark said...

Yes, it's the scruffiness, isn't it? That and the very knowing look in his eyes. So attractive, that Godfrey! :)

My Man Godfrey is one of the first classic movies I ever saw, late at night and full of commercials. (This was before TCM, obviously!) It was so engaging, zany and fun. I remember being completely bowled over by Carole Lombard's energy. She's delightful as Irene.

Now that the 1st quarter is winding down, things are getting calmer at work. I'm on vacation until next Wednesday, actually, and just got back from an hour and a half long facial, followed by a pedicure. Bliss! I'm really looking forward to the Mad Men season premiere on Sunday night, too -- as I'm sure you are. :-)


Kimberly Truhler said...

Bliss indeed--I'm SO JEALOUS! lol Sounds like you absolutely deserved the pampering, so good for you. That's the way to enjoy a little vacation at home. Ahhhhhhhh...

And yes, it's been a long wait for this new season of MAD MEN, so everyone's pretty excited. I'm now friends with Jonathan Kanarek, who actually advised on the men's side of the vintage styling for the first few seasons (think he's even on the DVD extras discussing suiting and the like). As you can imagine, he is always impeccably dressed right now to tie clips and cuff links. Used to have his own shop, in fact...the men's equivalent of GlamAmor. ;) Been great to get to know that side of style even better!

Enjoy the rest of your vacation, M and look forward to hearing your thoughts on the style in the new season of MAD MEN. :)

VP81955 said...

I can't believe I'm nearly two months late to this scavenger hunt, er, "Godfrey" party, but I just did an entry on this entry (with link) at my classic Hollywood site, "Carole & Co.":

We've been up for nearly five years, covering Lombard's life and times, people she knew and worked with, and much more. (And, as you might guess, fashion is a big part of the site, from designers such as Banton and Irene to patterns of clothes Carole wore in her movies from firms such as Hollywood Pattern.)

You do a wonderful job with this blog, getting me to think about fashion and films in an entirely enhanced way. Continued success! (And one of these years I vow to make it out there to the TCM festival.)

Kimberly Truhler said...

Thank you Carole & Company! I'm so glad that you enjoyed this article and really appreciate your coverage of it on your great blog. MY MAN GODFREY is such a really is a perfect film in so many ways, including how relevant it still is from its message to its fashion. And on that score, they couldn't have done better than to have two power houses of style--Travis Banton and Edith Head. Wow and wow.

Chef du Cinema said...

I hope you don't mind but I just wanted to correct a common misreading of the story that you also made. Godfrey isn't living on skid row because of monetary reasons. The Great Depression had nothing to do with his being there. Rather, it was a woman. He tells the story of how this woman took him for such an emotional ride that he went down to the waterfront to commit suicide and it was the other homeless men who stopped him and he just decided to stay there. He, as opposed to the others - and he comments to this to his friend Tommy Gray - who had no choice, didn't lose his money, only his heart.

I'll be posting on the film myself in a couple of months so I've been in deep research about it and many people seem to miss this.

Enjoyed the post otherwise :)

Kimberly Truhler said...

Thank you Chef du Cinema for your comments--I appreciate anyone who cares as passionately about the movies as I do. :)

But I do not think I need to be corrected on anything. I did not misread anything nor did I miss his comments about the incident with the woman in his past. You and I simply have very different interpretations of what his backstory is.

Godfrey never mentions his heart or love of this woman in his past to Tommy, as you are asserting. The word he chooses is "bitter" and feeling the need to give her the rest of what he had in order to avoid scandal as much as he could for his family, who is wealthy Blue Blood Bostonian. I suspect that something did indeed happen with Godfrey's personal fortune, causing this woman to threaten scandal and leave when the man she thought was rich was suddenly gone. Bad women tend to do that. Scandal seems unlikely in the Park family if it was just a relationship coming to an end and breaking up. There would have to be some additional things going on that they would seriously disapprove of, and losing one's fortune would probably be toward the top of that list. For them, anyhow.

I think that there are several behavioral clues that Godfrey is broke...that he lost his money perhaps a few different ways and also lost the way he used to be able to earn a living:

1) He continues to live at the dump even after he's gotten over the woman
2) He doesn't seem able to financially help the other forgotten men in the beginning (with food or whatever), as you might suspect he'd like to do since he admires them so much
3) He takes a job as a butler to bring in an income
4) He continues being a butler even after he's gotten over the woman
5) He must pawn Cornelia's pearl necklace in order to generate income to buy stock for the Bullocks and finance his project to help the other forgotten men
6) He also uses Tommy Gray for even more investment money, who is seen writing a check even at the very end of the movie to finance Godfrey

These are just some of my thoughts about it. This is a movie about the impact of the Great Depression and I find it hard to believe that director Gregory Le Cava wouldn't include that in some of his main character's backstory and storyline. Though we both agree there was a woman in Godfrey's past who negatively affected him, you and I differ in the details. Like great literature (I was an English major and used to debating details in books as well), there are many ways to interpret great film. This is my interpretation.

Good luck with your research and I encourage you to be open about other opinions you seem to be coming across. :)

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