Entry from June 23, 2010

This summer I am presenting on behalf of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute in Washington a series of six films on the general theme of "The Pursuit of Happiness." The films are being shown at the Hudson Institute, 1015 15th Street N.W., Suite 600, and you can go to the EPPC website for details or to register to attend. The series opened on Tuesday, June 22nd with My Man Godfrey (1936) by Gregory La Cava, starring William Powell and Carole Lombard. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes about the series in general and this movie as follows.

Welcome to the fourth annual Ethics and Public Policy Center Summer Film Series. This year it is being co-sponsored by the Hudson Institute, which I would like to thank for the use of this more spacious space than the one three stories above our heads where we have hitherto been rather cramped and confined.

For those of you who are just joining us, the themes of the series in years one, two and three were the American Movie Hero, Movie Romance and Crime and Punishment, respectively, and all consisted of eight films spanning roughly fifty or sixty years. These were shown in chronological order, earliest to latest, partly in order to illustrate what has been a continuing theme of these series, namely the radical change in both the style and the ethos of Hollywood story-telling that came in, along with so much else in the way of cultural transformation, in the mid-1960s.

This year’s series, as you will have seen, is coming to you under the rubric of "The Pursuit of Happiness," and it differs from the series of previous years in three principal respects. The first and least important is that, this year, we are showing only six movies instead of eight for reasons that are too tedious to go into and that we need not concern ourselves with here. The second and much more regrettable difference is that Amy and Leon Kass are unable to join us this summer as they have in each of the past three. In their place we will be having, I hope, various guest discussants, as I suppose we must call them. Tonight they are Michael Pack, independent film producer, Philip Terzian literary editor of The Weekly Standard, Kelly Jane Torrance, who holds a similar post at The American Conservative.

The third change is in the nature of the series itself and has to do with the significance of that 1960s watershed I mentioned earlier. Up until now, it has signaled what I saw as a cultural and aesthetic decline of once-serious American movie-making into triviality and cartoonishness. But Americans seem to me to treat the Pursuit of Happiness, happily, with a good deal more seriousness than either heroism, love or crime, and in some ways this year’s two most recent movies, from 2001 and 2006, are better (I think) than some of the earlier ones.

In the previous three series I tried to show how an important moral element and guiding light of the bourgeois culture which the movies once sought to appeal to has flickered and faded as a result of the cultural revolution of the ‘60s. In the case of the American Movie Hero, it was the continuing need of ordinary men to show extraordinary courage; in that of Love and Romance it was the inextricability of love, sex and marriage; in that of Crime and Punishment it was the social necessity of law and order.

Without these guiding principles, the post-1960s movies regularly degenerated into mere fantasy. Though I wouldn’t claim that that never happens with the Pursuit of Happiness, it is a lot easier to find recent movies on that subject with the kind of moral seriousness that was common before 1960 but has since become rare with any other subject except race-relations.

Insofar as happiness, too, gets the fantasy treatment, the demise of the Hays Code in the 1960s, which forbade the movies to show criminals prospering from their crimes, has given birth to a dreary procession of caper flicks in which the successful pulling off of some big heist is allowed to stand in for the happiness that was once supposed to be only the reward of honest toil.

Compare, for instance, the original version of Ocean’s Eleven starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the Rat Pack of 1960 with the remake starring George Clooney and Brad Pitt of 2001. The former shows the elaborate heist all going wrong and the philosophical acceptance by the cool bad-guys that even their coolness was not going to cause the universe to indulge them with an exemption from its inexorable moral order. In this way, the movie re-affirmed the bourgeois morality of the pre-revolutionary American middle classes even as it flouted it. The remake, by contrast, is nothing but a vulgar and amoral prison fantasy.

The movies, like everyone else, have always taken a keen interest in money, but they once had to expect that their audience would have had a more nuanced understanding of what it meant to get it and to have it, and strong opinions about the right way of doing both. The earliest days of the Talkies coincided with the onset of the Great Depression, and during that era, especially during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, the problem of how to be rich — that is, how to live the good life as Americans had always conceived it — became politically problematical for the first time.

We’ll see that reflected in more than one of the films we’ll be showing from the 1930s and 1940s, but in none of them more than tonight’s picture, My Man Godfrey of 1936, in which, nevertheless, the Depression is not mentioned except obliquely, in the references to bank failures, to "the forgotten man" (though Roosevelt isn’t mentioned either) and to prosperity’s being just around the corner — a saying of Herbert Hoover’s as infamous in its time as Richard Nixon’s "I’m not a crook" was to become 40-years later.

This is a so-called "screwball comedy" directed by Gregory La Cava from a novel by Eric Hatch, adapted for the screen by him and Morrie Ryskind, the father of Alan Ryskind whom many of you may know. The "screwball" element was provided by the great Carole Lombard, who portrays the "dizzy blonde" Irene. She is both the comic counterpart to the wise and dignified Godfrey, played by William Powell — who had actually been married to her for a couple of years earlier in the decade — and his potential love interest.

Her rival is her sister Cornelia, played by Gail Patrick who hates Godfrey from the first just as Irene loves him. It is part of the film’s cleverness to leave us in doubt up until the end which of the two sisters, if either of them, are to end up with Godfrey, whose more important role is to instruct them, one harshly, the other more gently, in the sense of social responsibility which ought to go with their wealth and in which they are both so lacking.

"Thank you for a lovely portrait," says Cornelia angrily when Godfrey calls her a "Park Avenue brat." And, indeed, it is a very unlovely portrait the film gives us of the rich who are merely frivolous and selfish, treating Roosevelt’s "Forgotten Man" as material for the society scavenger hunt with which the movie begins. Godfrey is living at the dump with a lot of other derelicts when Cornelia, first, and then Irene, try to claim him as the Forgotten Man in their scavenger hunt.

"Do you mind telling me just what a scavenger hunt is?" asks Godfrey, obviously a man of immense dignity even in his dirty hat and raincoat and his three-day stubble.

"Well," says Irene, "a scavenger hunt is exactly like a treasure hunt, except in a treasure hunt you try to find something you want, and in a scavenger hunt you try to find something that nobody wants."

"Hmm," says Godfrey, "like a forgotten man?"

"That’s right, and the one who wins gets a prize. Only there really isn't a prize. It's just the honor of winning, because all the money goes to charity, that is, if there is any money left over, but there never is."

Yet the rich are not beyond redemption, and Godfrey, who starts off as the prize-winning forgotten man, soon, as the family’s butler, becomes the spokesman for memory, and in particular the memory of other things that should not have been forgotten. As such, he takes on the job of educating the rich not just in social responsibility — which they might have learned without being rich or, as it seems for a while, after being rich — but specifically in the social responsibility of being rich.

The German historian Werner Sombart once famously asked the question that has puzzled many since his time: "Why no socialism in America?" Well here, some might say, is the answer. Americans see no contradiction between being rich and being socially responsible — because, I think, they don’t make the prior assumption that they are rich because others are poor, or vice versa. As a people we seem to carry a kind of cultural antibodies that protect us against the corrosive envy and resentment of the rich that you find in the countries which are or have been socialist.

But we also expect — or at least we still did at the time of My Man Godfrey — a certain standard of behavior from those who have money. To me, the most important moment in the film is when the lovesick Irene follows Godfrey into his room and he says to her, "Hasn't anyone ever told you about certain proprieties?"

"You use such lovely big words," says Irene. "I like big words. What does it mean?"

"Well," says Godfrey, "I'll try to simplify it. Hasn’t your mother or anyone ever explained to you that some things are proper and some things are not?"

"No she hasn’t," Irene replies. "She rambles on quite a bit, but then she never has anything to say."

The real point of the film, that is, is not about the stark inequalities of wealth between the dump and Fifth Avenue — which is the way we would probably see things today — so much as it is about the way in which wealth can become an excuse, a justification, for ignoring the proprieties, for ignoring the imperatives of good manners and the social decencies that were once a part of our collective memory.

That’s what the forgotten man has to remind the Bullocks of and so really what the hilarious opening scenes are about. A scavenger hunt for "a forgotten man" is not in good taste, not good manners, because it shows a contempt for the unfortunate that earns Godfrey’s condemnation of the hunters as "empty-headed nitwits." Wealth should come with what at the time it would have been still possible to call — though it’s not called so in the movie — "breeding."

That absence is worth reflecting on for a moment. Godfrey turns out to be a scion of the Boston Parkes and so would presumably have the breeding to teach the nouveaux riches Bullocks how to be rich. Yet at the same time he has renounced his family because they would regard his more or less voluntary descent in the social scale as a disgrace to them. Now he is going under the name of Smith because, as he sees it, though he has sunk socially he has risen morally above the Parkes, who were, he says, "never educated to face life; we were puppets for ten generations."

At first glance, that word "puppets" suggests a political subtext. What would the Parkes have been "puppets" of if not Capital? But I don’t think that’s what Godfrey means. The clue is in that word "educated." He himself has been educated, as he sees it, by the hardships he has suffered and, near the end of the film, he says to Cornelia that he was once a spoiled "Park Avenue brat" like her.

"There comes a turning point in every man’s life," he says, and he expresses gratitude that he himself has produced the turning point in the lives of the whole Bullock family. "Education" needn’t always be so hard won as his was, post-Harvard, but it seems to involve a sort of conversion experience which is perhaps meant to appeal to the American secular belief in self-reinvention and religious belief in being "born again."

Apart from Godfrey, Carole Lombard’s Irene is clearly the movie’s most interesting character. She is one of the then fashionable breed of "dizzy blondes" and was known, partly on the strength of this movie, as "the Queen of Screwball Comedy" — something that must seem rather a dubious title in this post-feminist age.

Equally politically incorrect by today’s standards is the portrayal of the Bullock family, in which the paterfamilias, Alexander Bullock, played by the gravel-voiced Eugene Pallette, is another kind of "forgotten man" amid the oppressive and profligate feminine society of his wife and daughters, who are either empty-headed or scheming — or both. Making money is obviously a masculine prerogative as spending it frivolously is a feminine one.

There is more than a hint here of the very old-fashioned view that not much is to be expected of women in the way of moral seriousness until they are given the firm guidance of some man — which is what Irene is calling out for when she rejoices that Godfrey’s putting her in the shower must mean that he loves her. Up until then, he had just been a substitute for her now-dead Pomeranian.

Does the film agree with her about this love? You may find the ending an unpersuasive one but, as in many Victorian novels, a wedding is less about the relationship between the couple involved than a re-assertion of the bourgeois moral order that had been threatened — in this case by the anarchic forces both of economic upheaval and of girls gone wild.

The Pursuit of Happiness, in other words, though it may sound a highly individualistic enterprise, generally turns out to be a pursuit of very familiar things: wealth, comfort, social stability and a loving family life. We see in My Man Godfrey a disordered world in which all these things are threatened but are ultimately saved for a few at least — and whatever may become of the rest of the "empty-headed nitwits" of the scavenger hunt — by one man’s strength of character.

This is also something familiar — at least it used to be — and that we’ll see more than once again in the weeks to come. Another way to put it might be to say that the pursuit of happiness is the development of character. The one must precede the other. That would bring a quintessentially American movie like My Man Godfrey well into line with Aristotle’s definition of happiness as the cultivation and exercise of virtue. And this is what we are responding to, I think, as we enjoy today — as I trust we shall — this three-quarter-century old movie.

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