It is often cited as ushering in an era of screwball comedies. It was a runaway hit when it came out in 1936, and financially stabilized Universal Pictures, then under a new management wishing to broaden the studio’s remarkably successful propensity to horror films.
Four of its principals were Oscar nominated in acting categories. This, a Hollywood first, happened when William Powell and Carole Lombard were nominated for their leading roles in the picture, and Misha Auer and Alice Brady garnered best supporting actor nominations for the same film. (None of them won.)
We are talking about My Man Godfrey, director Gregory La Cava’s romantic comedy, featuring exceptionally strong performances from Lombard as a socialite who hires a Great Depression-era derelict, played by Powell, as her butler.
Famously, Powell had been married to Lombard in 1931. (The union lasted just two years, and soon after it ended, Clark Gable entered.) The personal lives of both had little bearing on My Man Godfrey. Powell, who was borrowed from MGM for the picture, insisted that Lombard (borrowed from Paramount) be cast as his costar despite their divorce.
For her part, Lombard had a way of relaxing the movie set; the film was produced April 15 to May 27, 1936, at a reported cost of more than $575,000 (with Powell consuming a $87,500 salary — about $1.65 million in today’s dollars). Lombard would simply intersperse her scripted words with off-the-cuff wisecracks including four letter words.
My Man Godfrey earned the acclaim of none other than novelist Graham Greene, then reviewing films for The Spectator. He found it “acutely funny” for the most part. He pretty much nailed it. A comedy about contrasting amusing characters amidst the extremes of lavish wealth and abject poverty was heady stuff for a Great Depression crowd pleaser.
Thanks to the grace and talent of its excellent cast — kudos especially to Auer and Eugene Pallette — My Man Godfrey pulls it classically off.