Tag: Eugene Pallette

Shanghai Express (1932)

Marlene Dietrich is on a train full of mystery and danger in Shanghai Express

Director: Josef von Sternberg

Cast: Marlene Dietrich (Shanghai Lily/Madeline), Clive Brook (Captain Donald Harvey), Anna May Wong (Hui Fei), Warner Orland (Henry Chang), Lawrence Grant (Reverend Carmichael), Eugene Pallette (Sam Salt), Gustav von Seyffertitz (Eric Baum), Louise Closser Hale (Mrs Haggerty), Emile Chautard (Major Leonard)

The fourth collaboration between von Sternberg and Dietrich, completed when they were in the middle of – was it an affair, an infatuation or something half-way between obsession and resentment? Who knows. Either way, Shanghai Express is one of the their finest collaborations, a triumph of von Sternberg’s mastery of style and Dietrich’s charisma and appeal, brilliantly shot with some iconic images. The biggest hit of 1932, it’s also a loopy part-thriller, part-romance but with a sort of eerie dream-like logic and that mixes peril and jaunt. It’s a fascinating picture.

Its 1931 and China is in the middle of a civil war. Boarding a train bound for – you guessed it – Shanghai, is a veritable smorgasbord of ex-pats and mysterious travellers. First among them – and reviled by all but one of the other passengers – is infamous “coaster” ‘Shanghai Lily’ (Marlene Dietrich), a woman who (as she says) needed to go through more than one man to get that nickname. The only person in first class who can stand her is Chinese “coaster” Hui Fri (Anna May Wong). The man who has the most cause to resent her though is army physician Captain Donald Harvey (Clive Brook). The two of them were deeply in love, but misunderstandings came between them and he’s nursed a grudge ever since. The rest of the train carry their own petty prejudices – but all these are put in perspective when the train is hijacked by rebel leader General Chang (Warner Orland), who holds Donald hostage to get the release of his right-hand man from the Chinese. What will Shanghai Lili aka Madeline do to save the life of the love of her life?

Clocking in at a slim and efficient 82 minutes, Shanghai Express still manages to have a languid, patient pace to it, taking its time to establish places, relationships and stakes. Part of that also comes from the film being set in a sort of imaginarium idea of China, born entirely out of von Sternberg’s brain. With his long-standing disinterest in realism, von Sternberg’s film is a sort of fever-dream image of China. So it’s kind of fitting the film plays out like a dream, right down to its own pace. At times it rushes swiftly on, at others the stakes hardly seem to matter as the characters move freely around while in supposed captivity and barely consider their lives at risk. At the end of the film, the train arrives (despite the violence en route, the fact its late gets the most comment) and the characters simply get on with their lives.

Perhaps its all part of von Sternberg’s deconstruction of these Europeans and Yanks, whose only engagement with this foreign country is that it should be made as much like the West as possible. Most of the characters on board – with the exception of the women – are selfish, pompous, lecherous, prejudiced, greedy or some combination of all of the above. While they wear an air of respectability, it doesn’t take long to shake them from it. And their judgement of others is swift and irreversible. Even Donald, our nominal hero, fits this bill – he frequently rushes to judgement and pig-headedly sticks there, regardless of logic and experience.

In among this, it’s the women who emerge as the only characters who demonstrate pluck, loyalty, empathy and decency. Anna May Wong’s looked-down-on courtesan goes through a torrid time – demeaned on the train then assaulted by the lecherous Chang not once but twice (the second time an off-screen rape that none of the Western characters ever feel the need to comment on). Despite this, she’s one of the few who acts to defend someone other than herself, and her actions are (eventually) what brings liberation for the passengers (again not that they, or anyone else from the West, thanks her for it). It’s a neatly reserved performance from Wong (perhaps the best in the film), her eyes conveying an only thinly concealed contempt for those around her.

The closest thing she has to a confidante is of course Shanghai Lily herself. This is the perfect role for Marlene Dietrich, a woman who is both imperious and fragile, proud but willing to debase herself to save the man she loves, cold and knowing but also strangely naïve and romantic. As with much of her best work, what she does so brilliantly here is to bring together a host of contradictions that really shouldn’t make sense (except perhaps as some sort of sexual fantasy of von Sternberg’s?) and make it the most charismatic and arresting part of the film. Dietrich is not the most accomplished of actors – but she is an accomplished presence and undeniably charismatic.

Lily proves that she may be a hard-nosed player of the game, but that she’s more than capable of loyalty and faith to those she loves. She has no hesitation when asked to put herself in the way of danger for them. It’s a shame Dietrich doesn’t have a more charismatic scene partner than the rather bland Clive Brook (who ends up looking very forced as a romantic lead – you end up wondering what on earth this woman sees in him). But Dietrich’s movie-star magnetism holds much of the plot of the film together and provides much of its emotion.

She’s also of course beautifully filmed by von Sternberg – one late shot (with lighting pointing upwards in almost a spotlight triangle, creating a truly striking and erotic image of her smoking against a train door) has rightly become iconic, but the film is packed with them. Von Sternberg, working closely with photographer Lee Garmes (Oscar-winning) perfectly uses light and shadow to frame Dietrich with an alluring exoticism that compels the focus.

It’s all part of the film’s beauty and the skills behind its shooting. It starts with a series of flourishing tracking shots through busy train stations (something it returns to later on). Scenes that coat the film in smoke, with just backlighting, while soldiers and passengers move in front like a lantern show are extraordinary. The images make superb use of ultra-dark blacks to introduce frequently gorgeous images. With von Sternberg’s setting that only just touches realism in the faintest way possible, it makes for a wonderfully framed exotic fever dream – just as the film itself oscillates between action and languid romance in its pacing.

Shanghai Express is almost impossible to categorise. A romance with thrills in the middle, an action film where urgency is often off the table, a mystery that travels with an almost pre-ordained certainty towards its goal, it truly has a dream-like logic. And I guess if it’s all von Sternberg’s dream, it makes sense that it’s most striking scenes see Dietrich, perfectly lit, with smoke stroking itself around her. After all her charisma is at the film’s heart.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Errol Flynn hits the spot in The Adventures of Robin Hood

Director: Michael Curtiz, William Keighley

Cast: Errol Flynn (Robin Hood), Olivia de Havilland (Maid Marian), Basil Rathbone (Sir Guy of Gisbourne), Claude Rains (Prince John), Patrick Knowles (Will Scarlet), Eugene Pallette (Friar Tuck), Alan Hale (Little John), Herbert Mundin (Much, the Miller’s Son), Melville Cooper (Sheriff of Nottingham), Una O’Connor (Bess), Ian Hunter (King Richard)

Has a more enjoyable film ever been made? The Adventures of Robin Hood is such a glorious technicolour treat it’s pretty much an archetype of a Hollywood blockbuster. Reportedly the only film in history that had exactly no changes made to it after preview screenings (so much did the audience lap it up), it’s been entertaining people pretty much non-stop since 1938. Never mind its influence on Robin Hood legend – almost every Robin Hood based film or show recycles elements of the plot here – it’s pretty much built up a picture of what a classic Hollywood Olde Medieval England epic is.

It’s Medieval England at the time of the Crusades (actual history is of course no-one’s concern). King Richard’s wicked brother, the greedy Prince John (Claude Rains) is plotting to seize the throne while bis brother languishes in an Austrian dungeon. Up go the taxes – especially on those pesky Saxons who still fill England’s lands, under the yoke of their Norman rulers. Who can stand in the way of John – and his arrogantly ruthless right-hand man Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone)? Only the Lincoln-green coated Saxon nobleman Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn), the most upstandingly, thigh-slappingly, decent chap you could imagine. Taking the name Robin Hood, he takes refuge in Sherwood Forest and builds up a group of like-minded fellows who resolve to rob from the rich, give to the poor and protect the realm for Richard. But things get complicated when Robin falls in love with brave and whipper-smart Maid Maran (Olivia de Havilland) – especially as she is the intended of non-other than the wicked Sir Guy of Gisbourne…

Looking like an explosion in a technicolour workshop, The Adventures of Robin Hood is fast-paced, crammed with rollicking action, packed with good lines and played with a knowing wink by a cast of actors clearly having a whale of a time. It’s a prime slice of entertainment, and it succeeds completely. It’s hard to imagine someone not finding something to enjoy here. Sword fights and chases? Check. Romance and flirtation? Check. Some cheeky gags and a hero thumbing his nose at authority? Check. Villains to hiss and heroes to cheer? You better believe it. I don’t think there is a single type in Hollywood history where the cocktail of action and entertainment was mixed better.

The film has two credited directors. William Keighley was the original, who shot the material in the film shot on location. It’s Keighley who helped tee up the atmosphere, and to get the actors to relax into the style of the thing. Crucial sequences showing the characters meeting (including the encounter with Little John) and a large chunk of the middle-act archery contest were Keighley’s work. So, we have him to thank for working in a competition that includes an arrow piecing straight through the middle of another (a stunt put together with a bit of clever wire work and some genuinely gifted archery skills). However, Keighley was less accomplished at shooting action. And to be honest you can see it, during the sequence where Robin and his Merry Men take hostage Gisborne and the Sheriff. It’s fine, but there is a reason why it’s also not a scene anyone particularly remembers from the film. When the shoot returned to Hollywood for the interiors, a new director was sought out to handle the rest – which included all the big fight scenes.

The man they called on was one of the masters of the studio system, Michael Curtiz. A director famed for his dictatorial approach to film-making (hilariously Flynn agreed to the film on condition that it wouldn’t be directed by Curtiz, the relationship between the two having collapsed during earlier collaborations), what Curtiz could do that Keighley couldn’t was add a really visual scale to the action. And it worked a treat – because Curtiz gifted us two of the greatest, instantly recognisible, action showpieces in Hollywood history. Both epic sword fights in Nottingham Castle are down to him, his camera employing crane, tracking and long shots to add an epic quality. He was also full of cool ideas – it’s him we have to thank for a portion of the closing sword fight being shown through shadow play.

It’s the pace as well that Curtiz really understand. Compare the careful, single shot, used by Keighley for the quarterstaff duel between Robin and Little John. Now admittedly the stakes are lower. But then watch the immediacy and dynamism of Curtiz’s camera moves while Robin fights for his life in Nottingham against dozens of guards, or duels with Sir Guy. The energy – and above all the pace and speed – of these scenes help make them gripping. And it wasn’t just the action. Curtiz bought a romantic jolt of energy to the interplay between Maid Marion and Robin, framing a key scene with a romantic intimacy on the edge of a window sill. While Keighley laid the ground work, it’s arguably Curtiz’ work that makes the film what it is.

Well that and the actors. Errol Flynn was perfectly cast as Robin Hood, the part a wonderful fit for his ability to mix charm with just a hint of rogueish sexuality and cheek. Combine that with his athleticism – some of the stunts he carries out in this film are eye-openingly intense – and you’ve got the man you pretty much cemented the public impression of who Robin Hood was. It’s beyond bizarre to imagine the original choice of actor – James Cagney – playing the role.

Flynn also of course has winning chemistry with Olivia de Havilland. De Havilland uses her great skill to make Maid Marian far more than just a damsel in distress. She’s proactive, plugged in and defiant, convinced of the need for justice and more alert to dangers and opportunities than almost anyone else in the film.

Both of these two go up against one of the finest arrays of baddies I think film has ever seen. Rains is arrogant, aloof and ever-so-slightly camp as the superior Prince John. Rathbone is scowlingly austere and deliciously pleased-with-himself as Sir Guy. And for the chuckles we have the bumbingly cowardly Sheriff, played with comic delight by Melville Cooper. All three of these actors combine perfectly, offering a marvellous troika of villains, each a mirror image of different facets of Flynn’s hero.

It makes for a gloriously entertaining film, all washed down with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s marvellous symphonic score, the bombast and romantic sweep of the music perfectly counterbalancing the action on screen. Still the greatest of all Robin Hood films, The Adventures of Robin Hood is entertaining no matter when you watch it.

Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

James Stewart campaigns for truth and justice in Capra’s classic Mr Smith Goes to Washington

Director: Frank Capra

Cast: James Stewart (Jefferson Smith), Jean Arthur (Clarissa Saunders), Claude Rains (Senator Joseph Harrison Paine), Edward Arnold (Jim Taylor), Guy Kibbee (Governor Hubert “Happy” Hopper”), Thomas Mitchell (“Diz” Moore), Eugene Pallette (Chick McGinn), Beulah Bondi (Ma Smith), H.B. Warner (Senate Majority Leader), Harry Carey (President of the Senate), Astrid Allwyn (Susan Paine)

Capra’s film are known, above everything, for their fundamental optimism about life, friendship and the American Way. Few films cemented that opinion more than Mr Smith Goes to Washington, the quintessential “one man in the right place can make a difference” movie. And where else would that one man need to be, but Washington? Where laws are framed and ideals come to die. It’s our hope that those at the heart of the political system are there for the good of the people. Of course, even Capra knew most of them were there to line their pockets and do their best for powerful business interests. So who can blame Capra for a little fantasy where naïve, innocent but morally decent Jefferson Smith decides enough is enough?

In an unnamed mid-Western State (the story the film is based on named it as Montana), the junior senator unexpectantly dies. The Governor (Guy Kibbee) needs a new man. Should he go for a reformer or the latest stooge put forward by political power broker in the State Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold). A tricky choice, so he splits the difference by appointing Boy Rangers leader Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) – because he’s wholesome and clean but also naïve enough to manipulate. Jeff heads to Washington, under the wing of Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) – but Paine is in the pocket of Taylor.

Taylor and his cronies want an appropriation bill forced through that includes a clause to build a dam in their state. The dam will be built on land secretly bought up by Taylor and others, making them a fortune from public money. When Jeff announces in the Senate a bill to host a national boy’s summer camp on that same land, it throws a spanner in the works. Despite threats and bribes, Jeff refuses to go along with the shady deal over the dam, so they set out to destroy his reputation. With the help of his secretary Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), Jeff mounts an epic filibuster in the Senate to clear his name, stop the dam and reveal the political corruption in his state.

Capra’s film is earnest, well-meaning and at times even a little bit sanctimonious and preachy – but it gets away with it because it’s also so energetic, honest and fun. It’s strange watching it today to think that the Senate at the time responded so poorly to it. Leading public figures either denounced it’s view of government and even tried to have it banned. Ironically of course, it probably inspired more people to get involved in Government than any other movie.

That was bad news for the corrupt political machines that ran so many parts of America at the time. Capra’s film is remarkably open-eyed about how these machines worked. Powerful business interests at the centre, with a raft of politicians in their pay – from Governors and senators on down. Jim Taylor – very well played with a swaggering, crude, bullying tone by Edward Arnold – only has to snap his fingers to get things done. During the film he mobilises the press, the police, the fire service and an army of heavies to enforce his will in the state and suppress free speech. The Governor (a neatly tremulous Guy Kibbee) is so firmly in his pocket, he can barely tie his shoe-laces without Taylor directing it. Senator Paine is patrician, dignified and has every inch of respectability – but he is soaking in filth up his neck from contact with Taylor.

It’s this system the film has a quiet anger about. Whatever happened to having “a little bit of plain, ordinary kindness – and a little lookin’ out for the other fella too”? Capra’s sprightly film also makes clear that we both don’t look too closely at how our government is really run and are very quick to hoover up any story we get from our political masters and accept it as gospel. An honest, decent man in the middle of all this is as unlikely a sight as you can imagine.

But that’s what these people get with Jefferson Smith – and discover someone who should be easy to manipulate, but doesn’t understand the rules of the game he’s playing. Instead Jeff thinks they are all there to help other people, not to themselves. Now you can argue, as some critics have, that law-making is the art of compromise – and that once the dam is under way, the benefits it will produce to Jeff’s home State (in terms of employment and energy) will be huge. So why shouldn’t Jeff bow down and move his boys camp in order to let the Bill go through?

Well the point is that Jeff isn’t opposed to the dam – he’s opposed to the corrupt profiteering that will spring out of it, and the way the cesspool of Washington (amongst all those fine monuments he so adoringly looks at) doesn’t care. This is a filibuster campaign to put honesty and decency back into American politics – and what’s not to like about that? It’s a film that firmly believes that one good man in the right place (that’s both Jeff and the President of the Senate, who tacitly encourages him) can change the day and save the country from itself.

There was of course no one better for such a job than Jimmy Stewart (and surely it’s this film that made him “Jimmy” to one and all). Capra had James Stewart in mind from the start – and it’s a perfect role for him, an iconic performance that stands as surely one of his greatest roles. Stewart has the skill to make Jeff endearing but not saccharine, naïve but not frustrating, innocent but not a rube, gentle but determined. Despite its corniness (and some of the film is very corny) you relate to his reverence for Lincoln’s memorial and the Capital. Stewart’s homespun charm is perfect, but it’s matched with the steel he could give characters. There is an adamant quality to his filibuster, his refusal to back down and go along with injustice. The final quarter of the film that deals with the filibuster is quite superb stuff, Stewart delivering some very-well written speeches with commitment, passion and bravura. It’s no understatement to say the film would work half as well as it does without him.

But then the entire film is also a feast of great acting, all sparked by a superb script from Sidney Buchman which mixes razor-sharp dialogue with wonderful speeches. Jean Arthur (who actually gets top billing) is very good as a cynical Washington insider who rediscovers her ideals – and finds her heart melting – under Jeff’s honest influence. Claude Rains gives one of his finest performances as the patrician Paine, a man who tries to close his eyes to his own corruption, but swallows down his own guilt and shame every day. Harry Carey gets a twinkly cameo as an amused and supportive President of the Senate. (Both actors were nominated for the Oscar, but lost to Thomas Mitchell for Stagecoach who also appears here in a fun turn as the drunken but principled reporter Diz).

Capra keeps the pace up perfectly, and his direction handles both smaller scale scenes of romance and idealism, with the larger scale fireworks of the Senate (a superb set, that looks so convincing it’s amazing to think it was built on a sound stage). His biggest trick here is to create a film that, in many ways, is a political lecture, but never makes it feel like one. Instead it delivers it’s messages on truth, justice and the American way with such lightness – but yet such pure decency – that it all works. It helps a great deal that the film doesn’t shy away from the corruption and – apart from a final turn that saves the day – resists melodrama and contrivance. Charming, funny but also thoughtful and committed, Mr Smith Goes to Washington is one of Capra’s very best.

The Lady Eve (1941)

Henry Fonda is bamboozled by Barbara Stanwyck in the delightful The Lady Eve

Director: Preston Sturges

Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Jean Harrington), Henry Fonda (Charles Poncefort Pike), Charles Coburn (“Colonel” Harrington), Eugene Pallette (Horace Pike), William Demarest (Muggsy), Eric Blore (Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith), Melville Cooper (Gerald), Janet Beecher (Janet Pike)

In the 1940s, Preston Sturges hit a rich vein of form that led to him making some of the finest comedies in Hollywood history. Perhaps the greatest of that run of hits was the hilariously heartfelt The Lady Eve, a comedy that is as much a rich, twisted romance as it is a fast-paced screwball comedy of long cons and deception. Played to the hilt by a perfectly selected cast, Sturges’ dialogue zings in every scene, making this timeless entertainment.

Charles Poncefort Pike (Henry Fonda) is the young heir to a brewery fortune (the most famous brand being “The Ale That Won for Yale”). Naïve and shy, Charles is a passionate ophiologist (that’s snake-expert to you and me) who is just returning from a year-long expedition in the Amazon. On the cruise ship taking him back home, Charles is the target of every single woman on the boat – and also for a pair of expert con artists, Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) and her father “Colonel” Harrington (Charles Coburn). At first it’s his money they want, but Jean surprises herself by falling hard for Charles on the voyage – only to be stung when Charles coldly rejects her after learning the truth about her. So Jean decides on revenge, disguising herself as ex-pat aristocrat “Lady Eve” and proceeding to win over Charles’ upper-class New York family, and seduce Charles all over again.

Not a single opportunity for comedy is missed in Sturges fast-paced, beautifully done film. As well as some truly wonderful word-play and verbal comedy, the film is crammed with vintage sight gags (Charles’ struggles with an overly affectionate horse is a hilarious highlight) and keeps up a series of perfectly judged running gags (one of the best of which falls to William Demarest’s befuddled bruiser-turned-valet Muggsy). But the comedy works because it’s invested in characters who feel real – despite all the absurdity – and demonstrate real emotions alongside all the comic invention. It has a story that you care deeply about it, all while you are laughing your head off.

Because deep down this is a romance between two very unlikely people. Barbara Stanwyck radiates wit, intelligence and incredible sex appeal as Jean, a role that seems all surface but actually contains a huge amount of depth and shade. She may well be a sort of con-woman with a heart, but the creeping onset of love surprises (and almost confuses) her as much as it might throw off an audience. Not that that ever stops her from being (usually) two steps ahead of everyone around her, a nature that suits perfectly for her revenge act in the second half, where she aims to teach Charles a little humility. Stanwyck’s comic timing is perfect, but it’s the human heart she gives the character that works, and makes us warm to her.

It also makes a superb contrast with Henry Fonda as Charles. Riffing on his screen-image for upright purity (he’s Honest Abe for goodness sake!), Fonda creates a man who is sweet, honest, naïve – but also has an inverted sense of snobbery that comes from being convinced you are usually right. For all his innocence, Charles is surprisingly abrupt when he dismisses his romance from Jean, and his slightly priggish self-satisfaction is evident when he proudly presents his (feeble) card tricks to the card sharps he finds himself on board with. Fonda also proves himself a surprisingly deft physical comedian, a key running gag being Charles’ continual prat falls (a neat metaphor for him both figuratively and literally falling in love with Jean).

Together these two power a lightening-fast series of comic masterpiece scenes from Sturges. But the director is also confident enough to throw in other beats: a stationary single shot of Jean cradling Charles for several minutes (after a semi-pretend shock at discovering his pet snake) sizzles with sexuality. Later Stanwyck delivers Jean’s joy at finding love a heartfelt wonder, which she neatly inverts to heartbreak on her rejection. Her father, played with a delightful wryness by Charles Coburn, has no problem with fleecing people (although of course “Let us be crooked, but never common”) and delights in his ingenuity (cheating) with the cards, but he also has the humanity to warn his daughter about the sometimes unforgiving purity of decent folk.

And those decent folk are quite snobby. The second half of the film gets a gleeful energy from throwing the knowing Jean in amongst a group of upper-class rich snobs, who will believe anything that comes out of someone’s mouth with a British accent. It’s certainly been working for years for “Sir Alfred”, a conman sponger played with twinkling glee by Eric Blore. Jean’s almost deliberately ludicrous story (arrival on a submarine and a hilariously convoluted backstory) gets lapped up – and of course seduces Charles all over again. No wonder he keeps falling over.

The final act – with a deliciously funny final line that deserves to be more famous than it is – makes for a superb cap to what is a marvellously sparkling comedy. It also manages to avoid sentimentality or mawkishness – not a sudden surprise, considering it’s stuffed with people pretending to be what they are not. Sturges’ direction is sharp – even if visually he isn’t the most imaginative director in the world – but the main thing that gives this such zip is the dialogue and the acting. Stanwyck is simply sensational, Fonda just about perfect, and the whole thing is a delight. Surely one of the greatest classic Hollywood comedies of all time.

My Man Godfrey (1936)

Carole Lombard and William Powell flirt, fight and buttel in My Man Godfrey

Director: Gregory La Cava

Cast: William Powell (Godfrey), Carole Lombard (Irene Bullock), Alice Brady (Angelica Bullock), Gail Patrick (Cornelia Bullock), Jean Dixon (Molly), Eugene Pallette (Alexander Bullock), Alan Mowbray (Tommy Gray), Mischa Auer (Carlo), Pat Flaherty (Mike)

My Man Godfrey is one of the most beloved of all screwball comedies. It’s also the only film in history to be nominated in every acting category and the directing and writing categories at the Oscars and still not get nominated for Best Picture (proving comedy was devalued even then). Today it still carries a heck of a comedic wallop, splicing this in with an ever more acute and profound social commentary. It’s a gem of Golden Era Hollywood.

With New York in the midst of the Great Depression, affluent socialites the Bullock sisters – snob Cornelia (Gail Patrick) and ditzy, scatter-brained Irene (Carole Lombard) – are in hunt for a “forgotten man” so they can claim victory in their scavenger hunt. In a rubbish dump – turned home for the unemployed – they find the well-spoken Godfrey (William Powell). Godfrey is having none of the condescension of Cornelia, but finds the honesty and kindness of Irene more touching agrees to help her win the prize – whereupon he promptly admonishes the upper-class crowd at the Waldorf for their lack of concern for the working man. Ashamed, Irene offers him the job of Bullock family butler, which Godfrey accepts. But as he navigates the eccentric family, is Godfrey also hiding secrets of his own, secrets that suggest he is much more than he seems?

My Man Godfrey is a very funny film, centre-piecing the fast-paced comedic delivery of the era, the script never going more than a minute without a killer line or brilliant piece of comedic business. It’s helped as well by the casting, with every actor being perfectly selected for their roles, and each of them bringing their absolute A-game. Not least the partnership of Powell and Lombard – divorced in real life but still close – who spark off each other wonderfully and keep the will-they-won’t-they question beautifully balanced throughout the whole film. 

La Cava’s film – wonderfully directed with imagination and visual chutzpah – matches this up with an extremely neat, but not too preachy, line in social commentary. The self-obsessions and petty concerns of the Bullock family are frequently contrasted with the poverty and struggles of the working man, while the families’ lack of concern for the struggles of the vagrants and down-and-outs only a taxi ride away from their mansion home is striking. Godfrey frequently points up this lack of empathy in this ‘classless’ country (which is in fact defined by class), stressing he found more decency and kindness at the rubbish dump than he did in the palaces of the mighty. 

Sure Godfrey’s secret may well be that he is from loaded stock himself – but has given it all up in shame and self-disgust – but that only makes him all the better an observer of the whims of the rich treading on the poor. In fact My Man Godfrey could well be the film for today. The scavenger hunt dinner – a brilliantly directed, frenetic scene that looks years ahead of its time in its technical accomplishment – really captures this. The guests haw and shout over each other, clutching with an ironic glee their examples of poverty (from everyday objects to a goat to, of course. the ‘forgotten’ man, who has as much value as the goat to them). We get more of it at the posh clubs and cocktail parties the Bullock frequent, the guests (while not cruel) being as blasé and oblivious of their fortune as they are of the suffering in the rest of the city.

But that makes this sound like a civics lessons, whereas the film is first-and-foremost a comedy. It has a terrific performance from William Powell as Godfrey. Powell makes the part a mix of Jeeves and Wooster: the intelligence and calm of Jeeves with the warmth and tendency for scrapes of Wooster. Powell is brilliant at balancing the wry observer quality of Godfrey, while never sacrificing his warmer, generous soul. And also brilliantly suggests his wonderful judgement of situations and characters, without ever making him smug or a know-it-all. It’s a quite exquisite performance of unflappility covering emotional depth.

Lombard sparks off him very well as Irene, allowed to frequently head further over the top as Powell grounds Godfrey in normality (Lombard was a famously electric performer, and the outtakes reel for the film frequently show her screwing up her fast-paced dialogue with copious swear-words). Today the more ditzy Irene sometimes comes across as a more tiresome, less believable character – she is so obviously a narrative construction rather than someone who could be real that it becomes harder to connect with her (or to imagine Godfrey might find her attractive). But Lombard’s energy and drive carries the film through and the film highlights her electric qualities in several show-stopping scenes.

The entire Bullock household is in fact spot in, with gorgeous performances. Alice Brady (Oscar-nominated) is the quintessential disapproving society mother, archly self-obsessed. Eugene Pallette is wonderfully funny as the exasperated father of the household, barely able to understand either his family or his investments. Gail Patrick is a delight as Irene’s manipulative sister, proud and selfish. Mischa Auer (Oscar nominated surely off the bag of his extraordinary gorilla impersonation) is very funny as Angelica’s “protégé”, a preening, talent-free musician and freeloader who spends most of his scenes eating. Jean Dixon is smart and sassy as the maid Molly. There isn’t a bum note in this ensemble.

La Cava directs all this with great skill, framing the action with a beautiful sense of composition, pace and style. You know you are in save hands with the opening scene that show the credits appearing like neon bill boards during a slow, continuous tracking shot along the New York riverside. With dialogue that glides beautifully from humour to pathos, and delivery that creates comic archetypes that feel like real people, it’s a film that gets nearly everything right – which is why it’s still a classic today.