Powell Lombard

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.