Class Will Out

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Title: My Man Godfrey

Rating: 2 Stars

This play took place at Theater Schmeater, a small theater in Belltown. It sat maybe fifty people. With ticket prices less than $30, this was indeed a play running on a shoe string.

Given all of that, it was a valiant effort. My Man Godfrey is a classic 1930’s era screwball comedy. As far as I can tell, the plot of the play married up pretty exactly with the movie.

I think that this is actually the crux of the problem that I had with it. There were many, too many in my opinion, set changes. The actors would utter a few lines (and being a screwball comedy, would utter them very rapidly) and then the scene would end, lights would dim, people would scurry around, and then open up to a new scene. Being that this is a very low budget play, the actual scenery changes were minimal, but still, pretty distracting. I’d guess that there were at least 30 scene changes.

Fundamentally, this movie doesn’t translate well to play form.

In a way, this reminded me of watching Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra on stage at Ashland. Now, obviously, this play was designed for the stage. However, action in the play takes place in Alexandria, Rome, Syria, Actium, Parthia, Athens, and military camps throughout Egypt. This is just way too much stage management for a play. Even Ashland, which is one of the world’s best playhouses with a tremendous budget, couldn’t pull it off. It was by far my least favorite Ashland  play.

The second problem is the fact that the acting in the original movie is iconic. William Powell and Carole Lombard are at the top of their form. This is especially true of Lombard. This is her signature role. Her great strength was as a screwball comedian, and she absolutely rocks the part.

There was just no way that actors from a local theater could ever hold a candle to Powell and Lombard. They give it their gamest efforts, but they fell far short.

In the words of that great early twenty-first century philosopher, Omar Little: “You come at the king, you best not miss”.

Outside of the performance, I found the actual plot / characters of My Man Godfrey to be fascinating.

As I’ve said, the movie was released during the Great Depression. It’s the story of a very wealthy Bullock family hiring a homeless man as a butler.

The Bullock family patriarch (Alexander) is a weak, passive nonentity. The matriarch (Angelica) is an empty-headed ditz. One daughter (Cornelia) is a spoiled, bitchy princess. The other daughter (Irene) is the most likable and is good-hearted, but still is vacuous, frivolous and pretty much completely self-involved.

Godfrey comes into a madcap house, and in his serious way, manages to not only cope with the hi jinks but begins to bring order to the house. In fact, through his actions, he directly saves the family from disaster and their own homelessness by recovering the business investments that Alexander had apparently let passively collapse.

Irene falls in love with him and basically shotguns him into marrying her.

Isn’t this a great message? A family gone soft and flabby with its wealth, about to collapse under their own incompetence and frivolousness, is saved by a common man on the street? Isn’t that a great message about how we’re all people and that people of merit will, through hard work and a bit of luck, rise to the top.

Oh wait. It turns out that Godfrey isn’t just another ‘forgotten’ man. He’s actually the scion of a rich Boston family who has fallen because he has suffered heartbreak. In fact, the other ‘forgotten’ men that he talks to are all formerly successful men who have just fallen on temporary hard luck.

The message here is that it’s actually OK for Irene to fall in love with Godfrey and for Godfrey to be such a masterful savior for the family precisely because he’s not of the common sort. He’s one of their own class who is just hiding for the moment. He is the prince turned into a frog that is just waiting for the kiss of a princess.

This really triggered something in me because I’m in the process of reading White Trash, which is a history of class in America. The author makes a compelling argument that class has quite literally existed since the very first days of America settlement. Whether it’s the waste people of the 17th century, the clay eaters of the 18th century, the mudsills of the 19th century, or the trailer trash of the 20th, there has always been a group that is looked down upon, despised, and given no hope for advancement.

So, here we are, in the midst of the Great Depression, the great leveler of the 20th century, and even here, we have to make sure that the ‘forgotten’ people that show up on the screen have the proper pedigree.

Class will out.

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