'My Man Godfrey' in Classic Cool Context

This Saturday at 9:00 p.m. , KCET brings you the 1936 film "My Man Godfrey," a seminal screwball comedy starring Carole Lombard as a spoiled New York socialite and William Powell as the down-and-out drifter she hires as the family butler. It's the latest entry in KCET's "Classic, Cool Theater" series, which aims to give you not only a great film but also a vintage cartoon, two newsreels and an of-the-era musical number. All those extras add up to what makes "Classic Cool Theater" so special: context. In the spirit of this unique package, we're offering you a peek at the America -- and the Los Angeles -- that received the original "My Man Godfrey" back on September 6, 1936.

"My Man Godfrey" is considered by many to the definitive depression-era screwball comedy, a genre known for commenting on inequality in 1930s American life through the lens of quick-witted humor. It's one of many great films made in the genre's classic period in the 1930s and early 1940s. Perhaps better known than "Godfrey" director Gregory La Cava are his screwball contemporaries -- directors like Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges. Together, they pushed the limits of Hays Code-era filmmaking and laid the groundwork for today's comedies (especially the rom-com).

Screwball comedies like "Godfrey" are characterized by eccentric characters, farcical situations, fast-paced dialogue, physical comedy and innuendo. Combined, these elements produced sophisticated tales of romance unlike anything that preceded them. Legendary film critic Andrew Sarris (who passed away last week at 83) aptly described screwball comedies as "a sex comedy without the sex." Take a look at this "Godfrey" trailer to see what he meant.

And this trailer for Howard Hawks' "His Girl Friday," another screwball classic:

The love-hate romantic tension between William Powell's Godfrey and Carole Lombard's Irene is convincing -- and this could be because the stars had divorced just three years earlier. When asked to do the film, Powell insisted he'd only take the role if Lombard played Irene. The casting proved successful. "Godfrey" was the first film to be nominated for all four acting Academy Awards. It was also nominated for its screenplay and directing, and remains the only film to be nominated in all six categories and not be nominated for best picture. It's also the only movie to ever receive those six nominations and lose them all, according to IMDb.

Shooting "Godfrey" was difficult because Lombard had a habit of ad-libbing her lines and cursing on the high-tension set. Don't believe it? You've got to check out this blooper reel.

Take a Closer Look Back

Many films of the screwball era explored social class, poking fun at the upper crest to appeal to the movie-going masses seeking temporary escape from their troubles during the Great Depression. "Godfrey" is a prime example: a homeless man who's given a job as a butler shows more sophistication and prudence than the well-to-do, frivolous family he serves.

In September 1936 -- when "Godfrey" landed in theaters -- America was in the midst of Roosevelt's New Deal and months away from a presidential election. The front page of the Los Angeles Times was plastered with news of Republican attacks on the President's progressive policies. (The GOP's candidate in 1936 was Kansas Governor Alf Landon.) If you're not sure how that election turned out, here's a newsreel to remind you:

Los Angeles had built itself by attracting immigrants west -- but that all changed as jobs dried up during the Depression. In 1936, the LAPD launched what became known as a "Bum Blockade," deploying officers to key entry points along California's border to turn away Dust Bowl refugees. Watch this newsreel footage to learn more about Los Angeles' controversial action:

The photos below -- including those by Dorothea Lange -- show some of the discontent felt by working-class people in 1936 Los Angeles. Lange worked as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration, taking photos of the poor and homeless -- especially displaced farm families and migrant workers. Her most famous photo, which can be seen below, is called "Migrant Mother" and was taken in Nipomo, 160 miles north of Los Angeles in 1936.

Mother of seven children, age thirty-two. Nipomo, California, 1936. Credit: Dorothea Lang via Library of Congress.
Two Men Walking Toward Los Angeles, California, 1937. Credit: Dorothea Lang via Library of Congress
Caption: El Monte federal subsistence homesteads. El Monte, California, 1936. Credit: Dorothea Lang via Library of Congress
Men and women of the Los Angeles Public Works and Unemployed Union picketing outside W.P.A. headquarters, 1936. Los Angeles Times via Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive.

Depression-era diversions weren't limited to trips to the cinema. Check out this footage of some LA swing dancers, filmed in 1936.



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