June 28 at Doc Films: “My Man Godfrey”

BY BRIAN BELAK The University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt only began in 1987, but the history of scavenger hunts traces back much farther than that, developing out of the tradition of ancient folk games. In the 1930s, scavenger hunts became popular at parties of the New York elite, a phenomenon at the core of 1936’s My Man Godfrey, showing at Doc Films on Saturday, June 28. At the start of My Man Godfrey, a scavenger hunt at the “Waldorf-Ritz” in New York sends its participants out to find a “forgotten man,” which leads socialite Irene Bullock to meet Godfrey “Smith” Parke, living in a dump by the river. After taking him back to the hotel and claiming the prize, Irene invites Godfrey to live with her family as their butler. As Irene begins to fall in love with Godfrey, Godfrey tries to keep the Bullocks from discovering his true identity as a wealthy Bostonian Although the scavenger hunt is only in the first fifteen minutes, the event is crucial to introduce the film’s central criticism of extravagant ignorance in the face of widespread poverty during the Great Depression. Irene makes this clear when she describes the scavenger hunt to Godfrey, saying, “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 that nobody wants.” The double hit is the implication that not only are “forgotten men” unwanted, but they are also merely things, not people. Godfrey initially refuses to be taken back to the hotel, recognizing the insensitive nature of the request, but eventually agrees once Irene pleads for his help to beat her bratty older sister Cornelia at something. Another reason for his agreeing is soon apparent when, upon request from the chaotic crowd to give a speech after Irene’s victory, Godfrey tears into the wealthy before him, calling them all “empty-headed nitwits” and stating that the real “important people” are actually those living in the dump with no money or social status. Once Godfrey is in the Bullocks’ house, the family, standing in as an extension of all wealthy New Yorkers, is very quickly revealed to be almost entirely insane. There’s the mother, Angelica, who sits around and manages her “protégé” Carlo, whose defining scene is an extended gorilla impression. Then Cornelia plots to get Godfrey fired by planting her pearls in his room and framing him for theft. Even Irene, who seems normal at first, often resorts to faking dizzy spells to get her way. The only remotely sane one is the Bullock patriarch, Alexander, who runs out of money and patience taking care of the other Bullocks’ shenanigans. These shenanigans are mostly played for laughs and are meant to be caricatures of society, but their repetition does become grating over time. Probably the only major fault of the film is Angelica’s relentless shrill laughter that simply becomes unbearable by the end, even starting to outwear its welcome by Carlo’s gorilla scene halfway through. In contrast, rounding out the supporting cast is a gem in the form of the Bullocks’ maid, Molly. Although butlers at the Bullock house come and go often, Molly has remained working there for a while, turning her jaded and sarcastic after being witness to so much of the Bullock craziness. Her lines, delivered dry and to the point, are among the best in the film, and her only occasional appearance keeps her becoming too worn out. However, the standout role remains William Powell as Godfrey. The film wouldn’t work without his ability to effortlessly slip in and out of his different roles, from proud tramp to willing servant and eventually successful businessman. Without being familiar with Powell, the first transformation into the butler role required a double take, for beyond a costume and make-up change, Powell’s entire performance changed to become a convincingly new person. When another New York elite Tommy Gray shows up at one of the Bullocks’ parties, he recognizes Godfrey from the wealthy Boston Parke family and begins to meet with him in private. This allows Powell to take on another role through Godfrey, that of a slick socialite himself. It turns out that Godfrey had realized the emptiness of his life and ran away from it to live in poverty with more down-to-earth men. As Godfrey says to Tommy, “The only difference between a derelict and a man is a job.” My Man Godfrey is considered a classic in the screwball comedy genre, but the almost eighty-year-long separation from its time has caused a little bit of its spark to die down. A few sexual jokes are lost (such as Irene’s wish to “sew buttons” on Godfrey’s clothes, a possible reference to the fly of dress pants being buttoned rather than zippered at the time), along with the sense that this type of high society doesn’t exactly exist in that form anymore. However, the overall themes of avoiding thoughtless extravagance and the divide between the rich and the poor remain always relevant, so the film’s message is still worth keeping in mind today. It seems sometimes that there isn’t enough separating the UofC’s scavenger hunt from that of the film’s, so maybe the students could use a “forgotten man” to keep them grounded. For more information about Doc Films, visit docfilms.uchicago.edu.