How can a classic comedy such as ‘My Man Godfrey’ provide insight into suicide? From the beginning of the film, William Powell’s character, is located at the city dump but is much in demand as a forgotten man. Two socialite sisters, Cornelia and Irene Bullock, pounce upon him in their quest to win first prize on the scavenger hunt – all they need to do is produce a forgotten man. From the beginning, he is regarded as a mere object to be used in the pursuance of their convenience and pleasure. But Godfrey still has enough pride to reject Cornelia’s offer of money in exchange for him agreeing to be her scavenger’s find. He agrees to accompany Irene to the Waldorf Ritz hotel where this charitable event is taking place because she shows a tad more grace and humility. Out of nowhere he is then given a life-changing opportunity – she offers him a job to be a butler to the family.
In the past Godfrey suffers a heartbreak which obviously unhinges him to the point that he finds himself down and out. But instead of retreating inwards into his despair, he looks around him and sees that his fellow homeless people are in good spirits despite their poverty and destitution. From that point onwards, he resolves to help them in their plight. The focus is no longer on him but others, and as his vision enlarges, so too do his opportunities. Thus, as a subtext, this is a film about suicide averted.
Because Godfrey begins to live his life with purpose, it becomes meaningful to him as well as others. He is considerate of the wellbeing of others whilst being politely honest. The comic elements in the film are provided by the dysfunctionality of the Bullock family whose imagined problems seem to stem from the fact that they have no true purpose in living other than overspending and socialising for their own vain amusement. The only sensible member seems to be the head of the household, Alexander Bullock who is obviously jaded by their tiresome antics and theatrics.
Irene falls in love with Godfrey who manages to resist her inappropriate advances. She then feigns a desire to die in a futile attempt to gain his sympathy. She bemoans her lot – “life is but an empty bubble.” Yet, on the face of it, her life is full – of material possessions, people, and social activities. Yet, her soul by contrast, is impoverished.
We must resist the notion that gaining more stuff equates to ‘la dolce vita’. As Jesus aptly stated, “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Just because the world regards you as ‘forgotten’ simply because you are ranked amongst the ‘have nots’ or ‘nobodies’ does not mean your life lacks significance. You must seek to be significant to someone or a cause worth living for. By the end of the film, Godfrey has established himself as a philanthropist who uses his winnings on the stock market to help his homeless comrades. Though formerly rejected in love, he is now regarded as a worthy catch.