My Man Godfrey is a lot of things all at once: it's a satire about the wealthy elite, a socially conscious drama drawing light to the plight of the homeless, a light romance and, perhaps most effectively, an opportunity for William Powell to be awesome.
Basically, it starts off with a pair of rich, snobby sisters playing a scavenger hunt where one of the objects they need to collect is a "forgotten man", ie. a homeless person. You know, how you normally endear leading characters to the audience. Competing with one another, they each head over to the junkyard where tons of homeless have congregated, and try to bribe the same man to come with them so they can show him off to all of their friends.
This man is Godfrey, and he is not quite the hobo that he seems. For starters, his name is Godfrey, which really should have been their first clue, and second of all, he's got the affected diction of someone who took elocution lessons while studying at Choate Rosemary. He's just...pretending to be poor? I don't know, it's kind of complicated but apparently he was so upset about a previous relationship gone wrong that he decided to kill himself but then downgraded it to living in a cardboard box and getting the kind of pretentious "perspective" normally reserved for college students coming back from a voluntourism trip to Africa.
Anyway, Godrey is all of the following things:
a.) Shabby-looking but secretly, like, Uncle Scrooge level rich
b.) Ridiculously charming
c.) Not at all amused by these rich white people shenanigans
And this is where I have a little bit of a bone to pick with Miss Irene Bullock, the younger of the two sisters. The film sort of leads you to the conclusion in the first scene that she is morally superior to her sister. Uh, not really -- she's just a much slower runner. She was just as invested in the weird rich people game of making a spectacle of the poor during an economic crisis. The only reason she comes off as sympathetic and Cornelia ends up in an ash pile is because Cornelia got there first. Her protests that she finds the game cruel don't quite ring true, since she jumps at the opportunity to use Godfrey to win the scavenger hunt as soon as it becomes clear he's not going to physically attack her.
So Irene takes her newfound toy to the rich people club, where he is shown off as an object of amusement in a manner that is not at all dehumanizing. Feeling sorta bad about all of this, Irene offers him a job as her family's butler, so that he can be her protege. At this point (and, indeed, at many points throughout the film), I feel that Irene is in desperate need of a slap.
Because of course, after he cleans himself up and proves to be a remarkably adept butler to this absurd wealthy family that is more than usually prone to hysterics, Irene falls in love with Godfrey. And this is where the movie and I have a disagreement. I certainly understand how she falls in love with him -- he's intelligent, charismatic, well-mannered, kind, and has an almost saintlike level of patience. But I don't quite see where he is supposed to have fallen in love with her, or really, how anyone could.
She's sweet, I guess, but acts like a 5 year old throughout the entire film. She has a tendency towards histrionics whenever she doesn't get her own way, and can't get through one single conversation without acting obnoxious or crying. I don't blame Carole Lombard, who is doing exactly what she is supposed to, but there's something just patently unlikeable about Irene.
In fact, I felt much more chemistry between Godfrey and Cornelia than with Godfrey and Irene. While I can believe that Godfrey feels affection for Irene, their dynamic is much more like a little girl and a kindly uncle than anything romantic. Godfrey and Cornelia, on the other hand, are closer to the same level of maturity. Cornelia may be icy and a little too up her own ass at times, but she's intelligent and arguably the only character in the film who actually develops.
In many ways, she reminds me of Lady Mary from Downton Abbey: hard and sometimes cruel on the outside, but much kinder once you fight your way past her defenses. And once she grows out of the childish desire to constantly one up her sister, could be a good match for Godfrey -- they would keep each other on their toes. He sees something in her that reminds him of himself when he was younger, and his eyes spark when he speaks to her that just doesn't happen with Irene. Basically, there's a lot of sexual tension.
At the end of the film when Irene basically forces him into marriage, I don't see a man in love but afraid of opening up again, I see someone who has resigned himself to marriage because it's not worth Irene's histrionics to say no to her.
Ironically, William Powell and Carole Lombard had once been married, but were long divorced by the time they made this film. Powell insisted that she was right for the role, saying that Irene's behavior reminded him of the way Lombard had acted when they first met. And we know how well that relationship turned out.
My Man Godfrey is a solid example of the screwball comedy, perhaps better remembered than some because it actually attempts to address the social issues of the Great Depression rather than just distracting the viewers by showing them shiny objects on the big screen. Godfrey's empathy towards his fellow forgotten men reminds audiences of the humanity of the homeless.
William Powell is at the top of his game, wringing droll humor out of his absurd surroundings, while Carole Lombard plays the ditzy socialite like few others ever could. Eugene Pallette, human bullfrog, makes a classic appearance as the exasperated Bullock patriarch, his deep, gravelly voice showing a remarkable amount of contempt for his family members.
Unfortunately, the only real weak point in the film for me is rather a big one: the key relationship between Irene and Godfrey. Had they dialed down the silly, childish factor and given Irene a spark of something more substantial buried deep below the surface, that would have been one thing. But instead, the film turns a great character like Godfrey into a reluctant groom being frogmarched down the aisle by his shrill bride, and William Powell and Carole Lombard are both so much better than that.