At the city dump a group of socialites roar up in their car looking for a "forgotten man". They settle on Godfrey (William Powell) and one of them, a young woman named Irene (Carole Lombard) tells him they want a down and out to accompany them on their scavenger hunt. Godfrey is insulted when he hears the suggestion, and when Irene's sister Cornelia (Gail Patrick) offers him five dollars for the privilege of being a human prizewinner he pushes her into a pile of ashes. However, on talking to the friendlier Irene his curiosity is piqued and he agrees to go along with her to the hotel where the hunt is based from so that she can beat her mean-spirited sister at something for the first time in her life, little realising how his life will soon turn around because of this chance meeting...
When My Man Godfrey was released the Great Depression was at its height and a film that depicted the wealthy as irresponsible idiots must have appealed to the audiences of lower classes who were not so fortunate as to have money to throw around. But in fact the story is something of a cheat, for the homeless Godfrey is not what he first appears to be; this doesn't stop Irene from falling in love with him, which at first we think points to a sophisticated romantic comedy, but this affection for Godfrey, who she installs as the new butler, is soon shown to be the whim of a spoiled rich girl who has been engaged many times before.
Although the film is often categorised as a screwball comedy from the classic era of such things, it doesn't really pick up enough steam for the zaniness to be given full reign, perhaps because the social aspect to the story has to be given room to breathe. The script was by Morrie Ryskind and Eric Hatch from Hatch's novel, and at times looks as though it could get away with being a stage play as most of the action is confined to the mansion house Irene lives in with her sister, long-suffering father Mr Bullock (the great Eugene Pallette) and dotty mother (Alice Brady). Also living there is gorilla-impersonating concert pianist Carlo (Mischa Auer) who is Irene's mother's supposed protege.
Not to mention Molly the maid (Jean Dixon) who gives Godfrey fair warning when he turns up for work in a rented suit. After pushing Cornelia over, he would appear to have made an ememy for life, and she promises to make his life a misery while he stays there. That may not be for long as Molly informs him that the mansion offers a revolving doors policy for staff, and he may resign or be sacked sooner than he thinks. The point of all this is that the poor but noble Godfrey is more sensible than the foolish rich, a point which flies out of the window when he is recognised at one of the Bullocks' parties and we realise that he is not all he seems, and in fact has had a breakdown which has made him leave his previously comfortable life behind to wander the streets.
The saving graces of all this are the bright performances, with (real life ex husband and wife) Powell impeccably suave and Lombard peerlessly daffy; the contrast in styles and the ease with which they are in each other's company (they had been married at one point) boosts both his dignity and her willingness to look ridiculous, in fact her character has barely a shred of dignity at all. No one in the supporting cast hits a wrong note either, as director Gregory La Cava, in his career's purple patch before his alcoholism proved his downfall, demonstrated his gift for relaxing his cast when they knew they could do what they wished in service of the film and still look wholly professional - more than that, you liked them. That happy ending is frustrating, mind you, with Godfrey practically forced into a marriage that surely couldn't have lasted given the capricious world this exists in, where you can be on top of the tree one day and down in the dumps (literally) the next. Remade to lesser effect in 1957 with June Allyson and David Niven.
[This has been released on Blu-ray by Criterion, a far better bet than the public domain copies floating around. Those extras in full:
New high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
New piece about the film with jazz and film critic Gary Giddins
New discussion about director Gregory La Cava with critic Nick Pinkerton
Outtakes (basically the cast swearing their heads off)
Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film from 1938, starring actors William Powell, Carole Lombard, Gail Patrick and Mischa Auer
Newsreels from the thirties documenting the class divide during the Great Depression
PLUS: An essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme]