The Tale of Two Godfreys

The Tale of Two Godfreys
My Man Godfrey was originally released in 1936 as a screwball comedy with William Powell as the “forgotten man” named Godfrey Parke. Carole Lombard played the daffy Irene Bullock who snagged Godfrey in order to win a scavenger hunt. The film was extremely successful, largely due to the Powell/Lombard star power and the superb supporting cast.

If you haven’t seen the original film, Godfrey is Harvard educated and was born to one of the finest families in Boston. After suffering a bitter heartbreak, he decides to drop out of society, opting to live as a hobo at the city dump. Wealthy Irene falls in love with Godfrey and gives him a job as the family’s butler.

The premise formed a light-hearted shell encasing the more serious theme of mass employment caused by the Great Depression.

The 1936 film was popular and a welcomed diversion for movie-goers who, like Godfrey Parke, wanted respite from real world problems. The audiences loved Carole Lombard flitting about the screen yacking incessantly, and they commiserated with William Powell as he tried his best to make sense of the eccentric Bullock family.

People understood Powell’s Godfrey. They could identify with a guy down-on-his-luck. They too had experienced heartbreaks. They knew how it felt to be the only sane person in a room.

But all that changed when Universal began filming the 1957 version.

The screenplay was updated with changes that, on the surface, seemed to stick to the integrity of the original story, but in fact quietly dissolved some of its magic.

The studio had hired O.W. Fischer, an Austrian actor with whom the studio had a five-picture deal, as Godfrey. This was to be Fischer’s Hollywood debut, so the updated screenplay included a new, more compatible storyline specifically designed for Fischer.

No longer a broken-hearted Boston blue-blood living at City Dump 32, this new incarnate of Godfrey was an AWOL Austrian seaman who jumped ship when he saw the Statue of Liberty, thus, entering the country illegally.

Not only that, this updated Godfrey was not running from a heart-break; he was running from his own guilt and poor choices. He confesses that while he was attending university in London, the war broke out and he had to return to Austria. This resulted in Godfrey becoming a bomber pilot for the German forces during the war, something he regretted but did nonetheless.

Not quite as romantic as giving up everything you own because of a broken heart, is it?

At the time, this change may have seemed a workable alternative to accommodate the casting of Fischer. Maybe Fischer could have made it work, but this is something we will never know. After filming began, Fischer left the project reportedly due to conflicts with the director Henry Koster. He was replaced with the very English David Niven, sans German accent.

The screenplay takes another turn when Godfrey is deported. The only thing that can save him is to marry a US citizen and of course, this means Irene. While this ending makes sense, it’s not very satisfying.

The character Godfrey was no longer a compassionate character with whom audiences could readily identify. He stands out, not as our hero, but just another player with a complicated past.

The only thing these two Godfreys have in common is they both know how to buttle.

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