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Brief fling

By STEVE VINEBERG  |  October 8, 2008

My Man Godfrey, from 1936, is an essential Depression comedy, and it has the performance Lombard is best known for. She’s the ditzy heiress Irene Bullock, who wins a Park Avenue scavenger hunt by showing up with a “forgotten man” from an East River Hooverville (played by William Powell), gets her parents to hire him on as a butler, and falls in love with him. Although the movie is screwball, it doesn’t follow the arc of conventional romantic comedies of the period. There’s no real courtship, no compromises that lead the protagonists into each other’s arms after an initial adversarial period. They wind up together because the heroine (like Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby) is an irresistible force and the hero simply stands still long enough for her to bowl him over and hogtie him. (“Don’t worry, Godfrey, it’ll all be over in a minute,” Irene advises him before the final fadeout.)

The movie is directed by Gregory La Cava, who learned his craft in silent comedy; his training shows in the way he can orchestrate grandiose chaos (the scavenger hunt sequence) and sculpt a small-scale farce scene like Godfrey’s serving dinner to the Bullock family even though he’s so plastered he can’t stand up straight. The screenplay by Morrie Ryskind and Eric Hatch has a soft-candy center. We like Irene because, though she’s absurdly entitled and fakes nervous breakdowns when she doesn’t get her own way, she’s infinitely more humane than her older sister, Cornelia (Gail Russell), a sultry bitch who tries to frame Godfrey for the theft of her necklace — and even Cornelia capitulates to him in shame at the end. But the film’s ’30s-style eccentricity is hugely entertaining — this family are a lot more fun to look at than the more lovable nutcases in Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You — and it’s a joy to watch the debonair Powell, his face a picture of bemused tolerance, play scenes with Lombard, who’s like a persistent but mesmerizing child. She reads her lines, some of which are prize loonies, in a quizzical tone, at a slightly sped-up pace, and she doesn’t always pause for the answer, or maybe she does but then she starts in again before he can quite finish. It’s overlapping dialogue that goes only one way. And her eyes sparkle; the lamé gowns set them off.

Nothing Sacred, directed the following year by William Wellman, isn’t as well known as these two, but it ought to be. It satirizes the American penchant for sentimentality — the eagerness of most people, in the words of newspaperman Wally Cook (Fredric March), “to believe their phony hearts [are] dripping with the milk of human kindness.” This comedy is heartless — and I mean that as a compliment: the screenplay, a solo effort by Ben Hecht, is up to the standard of Preston Sturges. Lombard’s Hazel Flagg is a girl from a small Vermont town who becomes America’s heartthrob when Cook’s Manhattan paper publishes the story of her fatal illness (radium poisoning) — which she and her doctor (Charles Winninger) know to be a misdiagnosis before the paper takes her up. Lombard has one terrific comic scene after another, and March keeps up with her. (He looks as if he were having the time of his life, just as he did burlesquing Barrymore seven years earlier in The Royal Family of Broadway.) In one scene, they become actual sparring partners, though I’m also fond of the way she kisses him, dipping her lips into his over and over like a pelican satisfying its thirst.

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