Sunday, October 01, 2006

1936: The Overlooked -- GAIL PATRICK in “MY MAN GODFREY”

GAIL PATRICK in “MY MAN GODFREY”

I’m not really a screwball fan. Largely, I guess, because the heroines in them tend to pitch infantile tantrums, hold their breath, stamp their feet and prattle, prattle, prattle.
Carole Lombard embodies all these things in “My Man Godfrey”. For lovers of screwball, she’s pure bliss. For me, no. I guess it’s the role I don’t like. Because I can’t think of an actress who might have made it work for me. After all, Lombard’s heavy-duty. And she doesn’t pull it off. Periodic injections of helium into her voice are no help. And I don’t think endless run-on sentences are a perpetual hoot either. Delivery (and dialogue) trumpet the theory that imbecility’s adorable. Random eruptions of dithery laughter are flat-out embarrassing. And Lombard’s Irene doesn’t even stick to her own silly guns. Every once in a while, the Hollywood goddess pops out in full bloom. Maybe with a quick spritz of that silver satin voice. Or a line reading that’s just too damn incisive. Pleasurable. But it makes Irene Bullock look like a sham. Annoying as she is (to me), Irene’s meant to be some sort of screwball cherub, her transparent attempts at guile merely underlining the authenticity of her innocence. That’s the plan, anyway. But whenever Super Lombard shows up, Irene’s credibility collapses. She’s a put on. And if that’s the case, she’s also a royal pain.

So needless to say, “Godfrey” is not a favorite of mine. Yes, I’m perfectly aware that it ranks as Lombard’s greatest triumph. Box-office success. Oscar nomination. Critical praise then and now. Posterity’s judgment and mine part company on this one. And posterity seems likely to outlast me. But I’m determined to go down swinging. So let the public record show one dissenting vote on Lombard’s Irene.

“Godfrey” also gives us Alice Brady to contend with. Rattling along behind Lombard like noisy cans tied to a bumper, she’s not funny, just nerve-jangling. A whistling tea-kettle someone forgot to shut off.

Jean Dixon, as the family maid, is much easier to take. But she’s still always going to be Ruth Donnelly lite. Every move she makes, every line she delivers inevitably stirring up thoughts of how much better Donnelly would probably have done it. The two look alike. And they sound alike. But that tartly crazy space Ruth Donnelly’s head is at – balancing exasperated practicality with life time seating privileges at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – is slightly out of Dixon’s reach. Donnelly’s Duse, Dixon just a highly efficient road company version.

And then there’s Gail Patrick. A cool customer if ever there was one. She actually gleams. Wearing beautiful clothes with aplomb, she knows just how to glide through the rooms of a thirties mansion. In fact, she’s something of an art-deco masterpiece herself. Elegant, beautiful, streamlined, sophisticated – she’s also smart, observant and probably dangerous. And she plays it all at a chic laid-back tempo. Result: an irresistibly languid unpredictability. She’s a plush lazy Persian cat. But heaven help the mouse she decides to toy with.

Patrick’s amusing too, deftly using that low musical voice of hers to full effect. Give her a good line and she’ll effortlessly morph it into a very dry – and possibly lethal – martini.

“I could have you fired, you know … but I like to watch things wriggle.”

Patrick’s Cornelia is ostensibly the heavy in “Godfrey”. But of the three Bullock girls, she seems to be the one least in need of a good slap in the face. That’s largely because Gail Patrick’s so much fun to be around. Furthermore, Cornelia actually calls Irene on her inane behaviour. And for those of us who find Irene basically insufferable, that pretty much makes Cornelia the voice of the people. Yes, that’s a dirty trick she plays with the necklace. And she does bristle when Godfrey criticizes her. But, hey, she’s recognizably human. Another characteristic that sets her apart from mother and sister.

She’s usually saying or doing something delicious. As an elegant nibbler of hors d’oeuvres she has no peer. And watch her stalk Irene’s tea party – a smiling Park Avenue panther.

Cornelia: “Would you do me a favour?”
Johnny: “Who do you want me to kill?”
Cornelia: “I’ll do my own killing.”

I have major problems with the condescending social solution that wraps up “Godfrey” - with the city dump turned into a swanky nightclub, the more presentable “forgotten” men allowed to stay on as flunkies, holding doors open for the swells. And Lombard, Brady and Mischa Auer misfire big-time for me. But the movie’s not without its delights. Most of the men in “Godfrey” are very good – Powell urbane and understated, Pallette everybody’s favorite bullfrog. Franklin Pangborn plays his patented society hummingbird with hilarious precision. And Grady Sutton makes a welcome appearance to supply some inspired doughiness. A special nod, too, to Robert Light, as Johnny, Cornelia’s everpresent tagalong escort. The role’s practically impossible to play without coming off as a silly ass. But Light’s quite likeable. Vanilla, yes. But high quality vanilla – and just the right unobtrusive but effective seasoning for Patrick’s airy crepe Suzette.

Gail Patrick never did get an Oscar nomination. For anything. But in the select thirties sisterhood of sublime Other Women, she occupies a place of honor. Perfectly lit, perfectly coiffed, languorously posed in satin or silk, coolly comparing notes with Claire Dodd, Helen Vinson and Mona Barrie. All, needless to say, in the penthouse of some ivory tower, gleaming against the night sky, looking down on an endless art-deco Manhattan.

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