Release Date(s)1957 (May 23, 2023)
Studio(s)Universal-International (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B
Almost inevitably disappointing, My Man Godfrey (1957) remakes the classic 1936 screwball comedy of the same name. It can’t touch the funny original, notable for its biting criticism of the idle class during the Great Depression, their frivolousness and lack of empathy for the poor. The remake, made near the peak of U.S. economic prosperity, is ill-timed, though the main reasons it fails so spectacularly are more complicated. On its own terms the remake isn’t all bad; some of the performances, particularly by co-star David Niven, come off well.
In the original film, William Powell is Godfrey, a Park Avenue millionaire masquerading as a hobo eventually hired by Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) as her rich family’s butler. For the remake, the original plan was for Godfrey to instead be a wealthy but illegal immigrant from Austria, the role to be played by Austrian-West German film star O.W. Fischer, making his Hollywood film debut. However, by all accounts Fischer behaved abominably on the set, quarreling frequently with veteran director Henry Koster. Fischer was fired and Niven replaced him. Yet, despite Niven’s overt Englishness, the script was not altered, at least not very much, so that Godfrey remains an illegal alien from Austria. Okay…
Otherwise, the film is much the same as the 1936 version, with much of the dialogue from the original left intact. “Zany” heiress Irene (top-billed June Allyson), mistaking Godfrey for a hobo—he having just jumped ship at the harbor and sporting a three-day beard—takes him back to Manhattan, claiming him as an “animal,” one of the three goals at her rich friends’ elaborate scavenger hunt. As the night winds down, she hires him as the family butler.
Her eccentric family includes dotty matriarch Angelica (Jesse Royce Landis); Irene’s spoiled, spiteful sister, Cordelia (Martha Hyer), who like Irene is attracted to Godfrey; Angelica’s mooching musical protégé, Carlo (Jay Robinson); and cranky, financially-strapped patriarch Alexander Bullock (Robert Keith). They’re all pretty annoying but Godfrey stays on, determined to set the family right, if for no clear reason. However, his plans are threatened when he bumps into a friend from “the old country,” the glamourous Francesca (Eva Gabor), and when Cordelia hatches a plot to have Godfrey arrested.
David Niven is quite enjoyable in William Powell’s old role. By this point Niven looked a little like Powell did in the ‘30s and was gifted with a similar persona of dapper effortlessness and unshakable charm. Indeed, Niven was always good even in the worst possible films.
Conversely, June Allyson is woefully miscast, single-handedly dooming any hope of My Man Godfrey succeeding. For starters, Carole Lombard, 27 when she made Godfrey, excelled playing high-maintenance, ditzy characters that were somehow also unshakably appealing and sexy. Conversely, former squeaky-clean MGM musical star was 40 and middle-aged, and her trademark raspy voice becomes irritating, screeching out all that fast-paced screwball dialogue. Instead of endearingly kooky, Allyson’s Irene merely seems deranged—an overindulged 13-year-old in a middle-aged woman’s body. She’s much more like the psychotic sister in Chandler’s The Big Sleep than a screwball heroine.
Further, Allyson has positively zero chemistry with Niven. They’re more like a strict but patient father and his unruly, impulsive daughter, so much so that even though their getting together by the fade-out is inevitable it’s still something a surprise. One feels sorry for Godfrey; what has he gotten himself into?
Some of the actors may have been cast for their ability to emulate the original actors’ performances. Robert Keith may have been nowhere near as fat as counterpart Eugene Palette, but there’s a similarly croakiness in his voice, and Keith (father of Brian) was at least as good an actor. Jeff Donnell as the maid gets into the spirit of things, and is arguably even better than Jean Dixon was in the original film. Conversely, what would seem to be the inspired casting of Jay Robinson in Mischa Auer’s flamboyant role is disappointing; Robinson, so wild-eyed and over-the-top as Caligula in The Robe (1953) and Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) is curiously subdued here. They gender-swapped the “old friend” part but Eva Gabor is naturally charming.
Henry Koster was a good choice to direct. He was adept at CinemaScope and directed most of the fine musical comedies of the 1930s with Deanna Durbin, movies not quite screwballs, but close. But Koster is let down by the film’s bland art direction, which doesn’t remotely suggest New York luxury, though the second unit footage shot in and around the city is generally good.
Kino’s Blu-ray presents the film in its original CinemaScope (2.35:1) aspect ratio; like other Universal-International ‘scope titles from this period, it’s mono, though the DTS-HD Master Audio is fine, and supported by optional English subtitles. The image on this new 2K remaster is generally good though other ‘scope & color titles from this period have been sharper with better color, though this is perfectly acceptable.
Extras include a thorough, well-researched audio commentary by critic Simon Abrams, along with a trailer, complete with text and narration, also newly remastered in 2K.
More a curiosity than anything else, the 1957 remake of My Man Godfrey has good and bad points, but can’t hold a candle next the original, most chiefly because June Allyson is a poor substitute for the irreplaceable Carole Lombard.
- Stuart Galbraith IV