My Man Godfrey ★★★★

"Screwball comedy" is really too broad a term given that it could encompass a film as sexy as The Awful Truth as well as one as manic and vibrant as Bringing Up Baby, one as verbose and quick as His Girl Friday and one as refined and subtle as this one, really an intriguing study of an odd family dynamic that's never as uproariously funny as the aforementioned, with William Powell a cool-headed homeless man trying to build his life back up while resisting the pull of the band of blood-tied and fractured kooks who hire him as a butler. All the while that he's pushed and pulled by warring factions in said family, Carole Lombard is the film's sole stroke of real wildness, lusting after him relentlessly. On the one hand you could charge that it's disappointing to see the brilliantly acerbic Lombard reduced to playing a seemingly one-dimensional character whose only object is to spill her guts and trip over herself to attract a male acquaintance's attention, which is a mildly dispiriting departure from the often progressive nature of her usual roles (and the roles of many other women in screwball comedies); but at the same time Lombard deserves considerable credit for how genuinely surreal this performance is. It's absolutely maniacal, incomprehensible, almost barely put-together -- she's a cross between Hepburn's charged, calculated Bringing Up Baby persona and the Robot Maria in Metropolis -- and it flies in the face of the relatively staid, novelistic nature of the story threads revolving around business affairs and a politically charged plea to put people to work; both elements are interesting, but Lombard's presence -- and her role in the sharp audience and plot-screwing finale, which is the one thing that punctures a hole in Godfrey's unerring control of his surroundings -- is what allows the innocuous family scenes and the thoughtful explorations of Godfrey's character not to become You Can't Take It with You or something. As always, she and Powell are both thoroughly mesmerizing.

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