Genesis, successors, recognition — that’s all you need to form a genre. For the screwball comedy, the genesis was Columbia’s It Happened One Night, a sleeper hit that found an audience in America’s poverty-stricken countryside and eventually dominated the 1935 Academy Awards. Successors to the movie’s formula arrived almost immediately, with new variations appearing at a blistering pace for much of the following decade. Most importantly, though, screwball’s recognition arose from a publicist’s description of Carole Lombard’s performance in My Man Godfrey; plastered in theatre lobbies across the U.S. and paired with an enormously successful film, the phrase predictably caught on like wildfire.
My Man Godfrey is a neat halfway point for the screwball’s development. Where It Happened One Night mostly focuses on the Depression-era class divide, Godfrey doubles down on one of its subtler assessments: marriage in the twentieth century. Godfrey completes the link between the class-driven fury of It Happened One Night and the quasi-egalitarian view of courtship in the Thin Man series (also starring Godfrey’s William Powell). Conversely, where Night finds its comedic fire and inspiration in Leo McCarey’s repartee, Godfrey looks also to the physical mania of silent-era slapstick, an unholy fusion that prepared the groundwork for later classics by Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks (whose Twentieth Century is also an important precursor of screwball comedy).
Additionally, Godfrey was an important step for Universal, one of the lesser Hollywood studios, which specialized in genre pictures. The studio needed a replacement for its cash cow, the horror genre, which began to struggle after the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934. Once it proved its worth with screwball, bigger studios would follow suit: Paramount made Easy Living in 1937, and RKO made Bringing Up Baby the following year. (Columbia would continue to dominate the genre overall, and it can credit the screwball comedy for raising it from the doldrums of poverty row.) As fate would have it, Universal beat MGM (Libeled Lady) and Warner Brothers (Cain and Mabel) to the punch by a matter of weeks; had anything disrupted Godfrey’s rollout, or had the other studios landed on more profitable products, then there’s a chance this article would be focused on a different movie for screwball’s breakout year (though the year itself would remain essential to screwball’s history). Regardless, Godfrey is easily the most memorable of these movies, and that’s not only due to Universal’s approach — more on that shortly —but to the vast array of talent before and behind the camera who took Night’s formula to another level.
Lombard’s performance is essential, not least because it inspired the publicist who coined the term that defined a movement. Where future screwball icon Cary Grant garnered success by satirizing masculinity in The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, and His Girl Friday, Lombard gets extraordinary mileage out of heightening the melodramatic performance styles of the 1930s’ stock ingénue. Her portrayal of Irene Bullock, the spoiled aristocrat’s daughter who dotes on the titular “forgotten man” (Powell), leans into the Fay Wray school of histrionics, bringing the scream queen’s cries of terror to a comfortable, upper-class setting. As she would later reiterate in Nothing Sacred, Lombard knew the beauty of an unearned tantrum, and the most precious moments in My Man Godfrey are the ones in which Irene goes absolutely bugshit for no apparent reason. On the flip side, she’s equally as incontinent when she discovers Godfrey’s in love with her, which inspires an alarmingly childish outbreak that subverts Marlene Dietrich’s leaden grace or Claudette Colbert’s bashful warmness. Ted Tetzlaff’s cinematography completes the moment: it follows a separate narrative in the foreground as Lombard runs wild in the back, out of focus, creating a horrifying racket, and displaying absolutely zero chill.
My Man Godfrey may be thrilling, then, but it’s far from insightful. As with another pair of the year’s comedies — Mr Deeds Goes to Town and Modern Times — Godfrey plays the easy way out of the Depression. All three films present idealized solutions to economic inequality, not least in Godfrey’s casual embezzlement of the dwindling Bullock fortunes. Furthermore, Godfrey inherits It Happened One Night’s very worst aspect: it genders the stinking rich as resolutely feminine. Images of the effeminate upper classes were ancient even in 1936, but there’s something insidious in the way these films equate “the selfish and aloof” with “the weaker sex.”
The reasons for this are equally as damning, even if they were motivated by circumstance. Depression-era producers knew the mass market was struggling its way through the decade, so feel-good movies with Code-enforced endings were often critical of the one percent, and class conflict movies were practically required to be rallying cries. The Production Code also mandated the promotion of American values, which, of course, meant “patriarchy;” even without Hollywood’s deeply entrenched sexism, it would have been difficult to make a romantic comedy where a) the romance wasn’t fulfilled, b) the man doesn’t emerge “victorious,” and c) the Legion of Decency wouldn’t lobby it off the face of the earth. Reframe this through the lens of a class-conscious studio system, and you have a situation where the working-class male must vanquish the upper-class woman, mostly through verbal degradation, and stipulating a romantic conquest on his terms.
What’s also interesting is that My Man Godfrey avoids anything bleak. As mentioned, it’s much more idealistic than, say, Only Angels Have Wings, Ball of Fire, or The Palm Beach Story, and this cautious optimism seems to have been a trend in 1936 American comedy. However, this is more likely a symptom of Godfrey’s banking on It Happened One Night’s success; as showbiz goes, Universal took a successful formula and streamlined the risk factor. Godfrey’s edgeless aesthetic isn’t a massive point of contention, though, because its palatable humor proved a more immediate box-office draw than It Happened One Night’s gradual rollout, and Godfrey’s resultant success pioneered a tidal wave of new screwballs well into the next decade. Nevertheless, when searching for a movie that captures the zeitgeist of the 1930s, it’s best to consult the divorce drama The Awful Truth, the “failing upwards” classic Easy Living, or, even better, The Philadelphia Story, which is arguably the screwball comedy’s definitive statement.
Given the difficulty of getting a horror or gangster movie past the Hays Office in 1936, My Man Godfrey proved the screwball comedy was a reliable economic model that, as a bonus, was refreshingly tasteful. As such, the studios could produce these things on much higher budgets than, say, The Public Enemy or Murders in the Rue Morgue without incurring any issues with lobby groups. What the screwball shares with horror and gangster movies, however, is its longevity: Roman Holiday , Some Like it Hot, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Manhattan, When Harry Met Sally, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’ Diary, and Bridesmaids, are all evidence that audiences will always turn out in droves to see a comedically mismatched couple clash, fight, and argue until, eventually, they fall in love. It’s a perfect cinematic formula, and it wouldn’t be possible without My Man Godfrey, which demonstrated how to package the screwball comedy for peak mass-market appeal.