Tommy Gray: Not really?
Godfrey: Really. There are two kinds of people: Those who fight the idea…of being pushed into the river and the other kind.
Gray: After all, things have always been this way for some people. These men are not your responsibility.
Godfrey: There are different ways of having fun.
Gray: You have a peculiar sense of humor.
Godfrey: Here we have some very fashionable apartment houses, over there is a very swanky nightclub…while down here men starve for want of a job. How does that strike your sense of humor?
Gray: What’s this leading to?
Godfrey: Tommy, there’s a very peculiar mental process called thinking. You wouldn’t know much about that. But when I was living here, I did a lot of it. One thing I discovered was that the only difference between a derelict and a man is a job. Sit down over here and rest your weary bones. Let me tell you what I want.
Gray: Well, I’ll listen, but I still think you belong in a psychopathic ward.
Godfrey: You may be right, but let me tell you my plan, and listen with both ears. I have an idea…
My Man Godfrey seems your typical Hollywood tale of the vulgar rich…it’s the story of a rather ditzy heiress named Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) who in an act of well meaning, though slightly tactless, charity offers a bum she find in the city dump a job as her family’s butler (the Bullocks through tactlessness, spoiled behavior, and mild insanity have a tendency of making their butlers quit on the same day they’re hired). This man she hires is Godfrey Smith (William Powell). But Godfrey is a man of great patience, deep concern, and desire to make himself worthy of the kindness he has been shown. Your typical Hollywood depiction of the honor of the poor and the vice of the rich.
Only problem. Godfrey Smith was not living in the city dump because he couldn’t find a job and didn’t have any money. No he was in the city dump because he was on a year long bender after a girl broke his heart….you know the kind of long term drinking binge we all feel like taking if we had the money to indulge that behavior…and Godfrey, really isn’t Godfrey Smith, he’s Godfrey Park, Harvard graduate and the only son of one of the oldest and richest families on the Eastern Board. What kept him in the city dump was not lack of resources but self pity. And the Bullocks for all their flaws helped him shed himself of that.
We don’t see the low end of Godfrey’s life for more than a few minutes—most of the film shows a man of virtue, compassion, wisdom and grace. And very rich (who also, despite coming form money makes his own wealth through investment and clever business deals).
Now, some would probably claim that it his time as a destitute bum that taught Godfrey to stop being a spoiled child and to start acting like an adult. These people clearly haven’t watched the movie. He cynically seemed quite comfortable in destitution. It was not lack of money that made him a better person, it was other people. Or as he puts it:
“There comes a turning point in every man’s life. A time when he needs help. It happened to me also. And this family helped me. I hope I repaid my debt.”
This movie is actually more political than most on this list (it’s dangerous to show rich people as good and to then get political…heaven forbid that would be encouraging conservatism…and in 1936, FOR SHAME!) It understands that handouts are not the answer, going so far as to make fun of FDR’s handout programs and promises of recovery with the line:
“He’s got a corner on the market.”
“Is that the same corner that prosperity’s just around?”
No real help come from individuals. From Irene to Godfrey. From Godfrey to the men he knew in the dump. Which is why Godfrey’s idea of fun is creating a new business that not only makes money but also provides jobs to the men who were hard up for a job in the depth of the depression. Because as Godfrey observed the “One thing I discovered was that the only difference between a derelict and a man is a job.” And he provides them with a job. It is then up to them to achieve and make themselves worthy of the opportunity (as Godfrey did).
Not to say however that this film falls into the usual Hollywood belief that everyone is noble…no. Besides the vulgar rich, we also see with striking perceptiveness on the writer’s part that there are freeloaders who will leach off others and provide nothing for themselves or others. In this case it is in Mrs. Bullock’s “protégé” Carlo…a more worthless character it would be hard to imagine. So the movie also cannot be accused of having a distorted rose colored glass view of humanity.