Riding the Wave

This past Tuesday I did a local Fireball lecture/book signing on Pittsburgh’s North Side and then introduced a showing of the 1936 screwball comedy My Man Godfrey with William Powell and Carole Lombard. It’s been a while since I visited 1011 Fifth Ave. and Tuesday marked the first time I’ve ever seen Godfrey in a public setting.

Pittsburgh is the home of William Powell, or to be precise, William Powell hails from Allegheny City, which was once Pittsburgh’s sister city before being gobbled up via hostile takeover in 1908. But that’s another story. And my ancestors hail from Allegheny City after coming off the boat from Germany in 1844, but that’s yet a third story. For now let’s stick to the fact that Powell met the world as a bouncing baby boy in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, and spent his childhood there and some of his best pictures are being shown publicly in a series running two months in a church on the very streets he once walked. I was invited to introduce My Man Godfrey because of Fireball, a book about Carole Lombard that covers her brief and turbulent marriage to Mr. Powell and their close friendship that endured to her death. In fact, the couple had been divorced for more than two years when Universal offered Powell My Man Godfrey, and he said he would take the part only if his ex-wife was offered the co-starring role.

Map of Allegheny City, home of actor William Powell and site of a showing of Carole Lombard's My Man Godfrey.

Allegheny City was once Pittsburgh’s elegant sister. The showing took place roughly at the T in City.

The pro-Powell crowd was into My Man Godfrey, which is a loud, sometimes frenetically paced picture. In a nutshell, the zany Bullock family of Fifth Avenue, New York City, has way more dollars than sense and lives extravagantly, frivolously, and foolishly among Big Apple’s elite. On a whim daughter Irene rescues a “forgotten man” named Godfrey off the city dump and gives him a job as their butler not knowing he is a Bostonian from old money who had fled a bad relationship by deciding to live among honest bums by the East River. Or maybe it’s the Hudson.

Carole Lombard and William Powell in My Man Godfrey.

Carole Lombard and William Powell pose for a My Man Godfrey publicity photo. Both acknowledged that they made excellent friends and terrible spouses.

Familiar character actors populate the sets. Gravel-voiced Eugene Pallette plays the head of the household, a reasonable man who processes things in practical fashion but is no match for his shrill wife Angelica, scheming older daughter Cornelia (Gail Patrick), and capricious younger daughter Irene. Alice Brady plays the wife as if she’s off her Prozac. Brady was a fine actress and stage veteran, but the other night it occurred to me that a little of Angelica goes a long way.

Carole Lombard and other cast members of My Man Godfrey, a motion picture described in Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Mischa Auer as Carlo takes the spotlight in this scene also showing Lombard as Irene, Alice Brady as Angelica, and Gail Patrick as Cornelia.

I was curious about the reaction of my companions, including my friend Eric, who had never seen a Lombard picture, to Carole and her performance. He was quite taken, commenting on the subtlety of her playing and command of the screen even when confined to the background. Lombard would call Irene “the most difficult part I ever played. Because Irene was a complicated and, believe it or not, essentially a tragic person.”

My Man Godfrey is really Powell’s vehicle and he gets most of the attention, with Carole hemmed in by Irene’s pining for Godfrey through half the run time. She’s really part of an ensemble cast that assures Powell his picture will work. These players keep the plot moving along as they toss off classic one liners that stand the test of time. Strength of cast is measured by the sweep of Oscar nominations in all four acting categories—Powell, Lombard, Brady, and Mischa Auer as “Mother’s protégé,” the freeloading concert pianist Carlo. Director Gregory LaCava was also Academy Award-nominated for My Man Godfrey, as were screenwriters Eric Hatch and Morrie Ryskind.

Scene from My Man Godfrey, which is featured in Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Godfrey is oblivious to the fact that both Irene and Molly the household maid (portrayed by Jean Dixon) are in love with him.

I can only imagine how many William Powell and Carole Lombard fans were born of stumbling into this picture halfway through on the late show or TCM. The household at 1011 Fifth Avenue (which was the name of the novella by Eric Hatch on which the screenplay was based) is a charming and friendly place and if you watch any 30 seconds of this film you’ll be re-upping for 30 more until you’re hooked.

Carole Lombard, subject of Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Publicity photo of the screwball queen, Carole Lombard.

I’m amazed by the light in people’s eyes when they learn that Fireball is all about Lombard. This actress, gone 72 years now, continues to haunt popular culture to a degree I never expected. If you Google Fireball and Carole Lombard you come up with pages and pages of hits, largely because people are out there responding to the book and chattering afresh about the queen of screwball. I pinch myself frequently that no writer had done a fresh take on her in almost 40 years, and I get the feeling we’ve only scratched the surface of what might be a significant Lombard resurgence ahead.

10 comments

  1. Many years ago I met a young lady, in her mid to late ‘20s, who was a very attractive blonde with a vivacious impulsive personality and a crazy sense of humour, often self deprecating in nature. I never knew anyone who had greater people skills or so many friends. And I remember thinking at the time that she was the closest that I had ever come to knowing a genuine Carole Lombard type (even though, physically, she perhaps had more of a resemblance to Joan Blondell).

    One day, in the middle of conversation with her, she suddenly blurted out that Carole Lombard was her favourite actress. We had never really discussed old films much before and I was stunned that she even knew her name, let alone had the good taste to hold her in such high esteem. As we continued the conversation, however, she then started telling me just how much she had enjoyed Lombard’s performance in Topper, and I realized that she had confused her with another blonde actress of the ‘30s, Constance Bennett.

    On the positive side, of course, she at least knew Lombard’s name. Still, I felt it was a great loss for her not to really know her particularly since, as I already stated, her funny and charmingly extroverted personality so reminded me of the actress. I soon gave her a video tape of My Man Godfrey to rectify the situation. Afterward she told me that she very much enjoyed the film, as well as Carole’s performance in it.

    Ever since then it has been impossible for me to view or even think about Topper without envisioning Carole Lombard in the role of ghostly sophisticated Marion Kirby fading in and out of visibility as she toys with a befuddled Roland Young. What a royal treat that would have been, especially, of course, because it would have been the one occasion in her career in which she would have played in a comedy (and a screwball one, at that!) with Cary Grant, seemingly a perfect co-star for her with that kind of material. (Yes, they did make a soap opera together but that wasn’t quite the same thing).

    It would be wonderful, indeed, Robert , if there was a resurgence of interest among the movie going public with the unique star/actress/personality that was Carole Lombard. And if Fireball should play a contributing hand in that revival, it’s all the more reason for you to take a special pride in your work.

    Certainly if there ever is another occasion in which I meet someone who tells me how much they like Lombard, it would be great if they said so actually knowing what the real Carole was all about.

    1. Intriguing to read that comment, considering that Universal initially sought Connie for the female lead in “Godfrey,” but Powell wanted nothing to do with her. She eventually made a comedy with “Godfrey” overtones, “Merrily We Live,” in 1938. (Bennett was a talented actress, but rather flighty; it’s been rumored, though never confirmed, that the reason Lombard and fellow Pathe player Diane Ellis were dismissed from that studio in late 1929 is that it had just signed Constance to a contract, and she wanted to make sure there was no other blonde competition on the lot.)

      And it is the East River (that’s the Queensboro Bridge in the background following those marvelous opening credits) — had it been the Hudson, the only bridge that could have been used for a setting would be the George Washington, quite a ways uptown, though I guess a scavenger hunt might have wandered that far north.

  2. That is an interesting coincidence, vp19. I had never heard that Constance Bennett had been under consideration for My Man Godfrey (glad Powell stuck up for Lombard so that she got the part instead).

    Yes, those opening credits of Godfrey are a particular joy, aren’t they, a quite remarkable combination of painted landscapes by Universal matte painter Russell Lawson and special effects by John P. Lawson.

    I’m also intrigued, though, by Robert’s comment that Lombard considered Irene Bullock to be essentially a tragic character. I’ve never quite thought of Irene that way.

  3. I am a recent fan of William Powell and Carole Lombard. I’m sorry it took so long for me to find them. I am hooked. William Powell in particular just fascinates me. I hope TCM keeps showing
    these wonderful movies..

    1. Welcome aboard, cc. The beautiful thing about Powell is that he had such a long and varied career for so many studios, he’s bound to keep turning up.

  4. Robert, I’ll have to read “Fireball.” I found your great blog because of wondering how William Powell and Carole Lombard could act together so well just a few years after being divorced. Especially seeing how Carole’s Irene is pining and pining for William’s Godfrey, who as butler and being significantly older must stay aloof.

    Sometimes I found myself watching them as though they were speaking their lines not as ditz and butler but as the real-life Mr. & ex-Mrs. Powell they were. Sometimes I wondered whether they couldn’t help thinking back to the =courtship= of Mr. and Soon-to-be-Mrs. Powell. As a professional, would Carole, especially, use the essence of a memory to spark an appropriate emotional reaction?

    Thanks for the blog!

    1. You are very kind, Peter, thank you. I feel I can serve as a spokesperson for the exes who remain friends for life, who realize they made terrible spouses and so they adjust as necessary and never look back. My ex, who became an ex after 10 years, remains one of my best friends and never once that I’m aware of has either of us expressed regret that the one relationship ended because the friendship just kept thriving. I think it was the same for Lombard and Powell, who were there for each other in ways after the divorce that they couldn’t have been as mr. and mrs. Now, it’s possible there was some hanky and some panky between them after the decree–Russ Columbo sure thought there was and expressed jealous outrage more than once. But that was probably Carole the sexual gymnast just working out. Later on when Bill met Diana Lewis, Carole was one of the biggest supporters of the relationship.

      In short, Peter, thanks for reading.

  5. Robert, in regards to your response to Peter, I also need to read Fireball. It is now on my list. I must say that I think it’s great that you have a best friend relationship with your ex. You can relate to the Powell/Lombard relationship. I love them both, but absolutely adore Powell. I’ve read many things on their marriage and post marriage. It was fascinating. One thing I always wondered was something that you touched on. Carole’s happiness for Bill’s marriage to Diana Lewis. Their never seemed to be jealously from either in regards to any new relationships. Case in point, their double date to the Oscars in 1937. It seems that after Carole was so caring and sweet to him with his illness, like so many others who were so wonderful to him, you don’t find too much on their paths crossing. Do you know of any instances? Recently, I found a little article on Clark Gable from around 1946 or 47. It mentioned that he had recently had a poker night with Bill and Diana and Slim Keith in Palm Springs. It was just a random find that I found interesting. Thanks.

    1. One interesting tidbit, Cc, but off topic a little. Richard Lang, Fieldsie’s son, said that Gable maintained a close relationship with Fieldsie through the 1940s and was part of a fun-loving gang that included Ty Power and three members of the Lombard fan club, Cesar Romero, Fred MacMurray, and Robert Stack. They all used to congregate at Fieldsie’s housefor booze and games and this is a side of Gable that I wouldn’t have expected. Powell, I’m thinking, was much less gregarious and preferred to recede into the woodwork with Mousie as he aged.

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