March 7, 2014

William Powell, My Man Godfrey

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William Powell has a charisma to him that I think few actors have. Aside from his handsome looks, there's an almost palpable intelligence to the way he presents himself onscreen. The way in which he speaks and reacts to other people has a confident smoothness that really makes you feel at ease with the characters he plays. Whether he's flirting with danger as Nick Charles or wooing us as Florenz Ziegfeld or butling in disguise as Godfrey, my interest in Powell is always consistently high. He's got a great mastery of his movie star powers, that even if he's not exactly wowing me with one of his performances, he can still hold my attention on the sheer basis of his charisma.

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 photo ScreenShot2014-03-04at120417AM.jpgGodfrey is certainly not the most interesting character in My Man Godfrey. Perhaps that's the handicap here. In between Carole Lombard's dizzy dame, Alice Brady's shrill scenery chewing, Misha Auer's monkey dancing, and Gail Patrick's exacting wickedness, Powell frequently gets lost to the antics of others in his own film. There's not much flair one can summon to the role of a internally restrained butler, though at times I felt as though Powell left a bit to be desired. I think he's a little more stoic than he needs to be; when Godfrey tells his friend about how he was so heartbroken by a past love that he planned on committing suicide, it's done so in the typical smooth Powell fashion which, while not necessarily bad, makes one wonder if he missed an opportunity to give Godfrey a more vulnerable and human essence. For most of the film Powell is reacting to a whole lot of the supporting cast members, and yet he doesn't have as sharp a wit or the penchant for sarcasm that made The Thin Man so vivid and entertaining. I never got the feeling that he was trying as hard as his co-star--if he was exercising restraint, I'm not sure I saw it. In other words, his effort feels a little ordinary. So I suppose Godfrey is a lot more passive a character than I'd like, and while that charisma is still there, it's a lot more lackluster compared to Powell's previous efforts. Regardless, it's an adequate performance in an exceptional and timeless comedy, though I don't know if Powell's work is significant enough to be regarded as one of the best of 1936.

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