Saturday, July 21, 2012

TV Bites: My Man Godfrey

William Powell's Vatrouskis (Vatrushki)

A version of this post appears at the Criterion Collection website

The first thing I want to mention is that this post marks the 2nd Anniversary of this adventure. I've been writing and teaching classes now two years as Chef du Cinema. Unbelievable. All I can say is that I've been really enjoying myself doing this and I hope you have enjoyed at least some of it and, hopefully, you've discovered some new movies, and have made some good food from the recipes you've found here. So thanks for dropping by. (Feel free to drop me a line and tell me about it.)

Let's get to it, then.... Why, you ask, have I paired this film and His Girl Friday back to back? Well, they are both screwball comedies and both have three words in the title.

Okay, that's weak.

Let's try this instead.... This film never grows old for me. I fall in love with it again every time I see it. It's everything I love about movies. And like His Girl Friday, I would definitely say the two of them are on my top 10 list of favorite movies and have been for decades. Unequivocally.

But, as always, there are other connections. Morrie Ryskind, who wrote the script for My Man Godfrey, was brought in to polish His Girl Friday. And there's more.... See, Howard Hawks really wanted to give the role of Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday to his second cousin but she turned him down. Yup. his second cousin (again, as mentioned in the previous post) - was Carole Lombard.

My Man Godfrey is available for online streaming at various places for FREE, including Hulu (DON'T watch the evil colorized version, please!) and can be purchased in an excellent Criterion Collection edition @ Amazon.


"You love me, and you know it. There's no sense in struggling against a thing when it's got you. That's all there is to it."


Actor William Powell, in his day, was described by such adjectives as "sauve," "debonair," "classy," "a man's man," "a ladies' man," "a gentleman." It wasn't just his on camera roles (even in the first half of his career as a silent movie villain, he was cast as a "sauve" and "urbane" villain), it was how he was off camera, as well.

Powell had married young, at 22, while he was still a struggling actor. They had a son together. But they soon realized they weren't happily married and separated. This wasn't as common as it is today, remember. But being the kind of man he was, he swore he would continue to provide for the two of them and when he began working in the movies, he got them an apartment in Los Angeles, so the boy would have a father around. (He also brought his parents out from Kansas City; and his father, a former banker, managed his son's finances.)

In the ensuing years, Powell, along with his pals Ronald Coleman and Richard Barthelmess, were quite the men on the town (known in nightspots as "the Three Musketeers"). Powell was considered one of the most eligible bachelors (though he was technically not divorced) in Hollywood. Once, he said that the problem with the institution of marriage is that "it is too much like living in an institution."

But that all changed in the fall of 1930. Powell (who was one of Paramount's biggest stars at the time) was asked by director Richard Wallace to meet with a young actress he wanted to have costar with him in a new picture, Man of the World to see if Powell approved. That actress was Carole Lombard.

Lombard began her career in Hollywood in her teens and, as we know, was very attractive. She found herself constantly hounded by the wolves of Tinseltown but came upon an idea to thwart them. She had her two brothers teach her every “expletive deletive” they knew. She not only peppered but also salted her conversations with them – which had the effect she intended – a turn off to would-be seducers. However, she quickly discovered they also treated her less like a naïve ingénue and more like “one of the boys,” which she enjoyed.

She had made a bit of a name for herself in Mack Sennett comedies, but was anxious to make a step up, and dreamed of being a famous film star... and married to one, too.

She was extremely nervous about meeting Powell, but they quickly hit it off and continued the conversation from the office to dinner that night. And before the film was even in the can, the two became quite the couple and written about in the Hollywood gossip magazines (though the press at first considered her somewhat of a "gold digger" - but that quickly went away).

The romance got even more serious during their second film together later that year, Ladies Man (the other costar of the film was Kay Francis, whom Powell had previously had a fling with).

Powell & Lombard made quite the odd couple – he, the suave, man of the world; and she with her impetuous nature and sailor's mouth. Even though the gossip columns began suggesting wedding bells were eminent for them, they both denied it.

Lombard noted that marriage was "dangerous," as it "spoils beautiful friendships that might have lasted years. The idea of two people trying to possess each other is wrong. It must be a friendship... a calm companionship."

But by mid-1931, he had divorce papers from his former wife and a marriage license for Lombard. He told reporters, "I've enjoyed the prerogatives and pleasures attached to bachelorhood for six years and now I guess the old man is ready to settle down.... I married when I was 22. I married so young, or at least I was in love so young, I never had the chance at freedom most young men of today enjoy before they comply with conventions and marry. In those six years, I've had my chance at the freedom I missed. I'm not saying it hasn't been pleasant, but I'm giving up that so-called freedom now." (The irony that Lombard was 22 at the time he was saying that seemed to have been lost on him.)

In another interview he stated, "Freedom is one of the greatest disillusions of the world. We think we want it above all things, but when we get it, what in the world can we do with it? What's the fun of going places and seeing things if there isn't someone important to share the thrill of traveling? What's the fun of accomplishing things if there isn't someone, who means a lot, to applaud and tell you what a remarkable fellow you are?.... I'm getting the most wonderful girl in the world. Freedom? I'd trade every bit of it for a few hours with Carole!"

And so they were married. The honeymoon was a bit rocky as Lombard not only got sick on the boat, but once they arrived in Hawaii, also contracted malaria.

Lombard was generally prone to illnesses. For the next couple of years, although her star was rising - Paramount was keeping her busy nonstop to make up for the huge sum Powell's agent negotiated for her - she would regularly have to take sick leave be it flu, colds, or menstrual cramps. (She once famously explained to an executive at Paramount, "God switched the formula on me; there are just three days a month I don't bleed.")

At first, she was like Powell's protégé. He coached her in acting and hooked her up with his agent who in turn got her a very lucrative contract at Paramount. They spent their evenings now at home, having dinner with each other and often with friends like actor Richard Bathelmess and his wife.

Meanwhile, Powell had left Paramount for Warner Bros. He had a few pictures he liked, but many he didn't care for, and neither did the public. He was still one of the top talents in the business, but Warners didn't seem to have the right scripts. At the time, it didn't seem to bother Powell that much. After all, he was hitting 40, making good money, and was pleased not to have such a busy schedule. But within his marriage to Lombard, they were like ships sailing in the opposite direction.

"Bill would finish a picture and have three month's holiday. I would have to make three or four pictures in succession," she told reporters. "To travel now with Bill [his special passion] would mean that I must retire from the screen." Which wasn't going to happen.

By the end of 1932, word on the street was that the marriage was on the rocks. In the spring of 1933, she moved out. They had an uncontested divorce, and the private joke at the proceedings was that one of her given reasons for it was Powell's use of "foul language." A few years later she was quoted to say of her marriage: "I was the best f**kin' wife you ever saw."

Yet, they continued – in one of those rare occurrences with divorcées, especially so at that time– to be great friends. In fact, once the divorce was finalized, they were again seen hitting the nightspots together and the gossip pages rumored they might well remarry. But they didn't. They remained friends and confidantes. "I must like the man, or I wouldn't have married him in the first place,” Lombard told reporters shortly after the divorce.

1934 was an amazing year for the two of them. She finally had found the role which put her on the "A list" - Twentieth Century. Powell was cast in the first of the series of films for which he will be forever remembered for, The Thin Man.

Cut to 1936. William Powell was offered the lead in My Man Godfrey. He said he would take the part under one condition – that Carole Lombard would play Irene, his love interest. It would be the first time a divorced couple in real life would play a romantic couple in the movies. (At the time, Powell was dating Jean Harlow, and Lombard and Clark Gable were beginning their romance.)

Now the reason I've gone through all this is that when watching My Man Godfrey, there is a bit of dialogue near the end of the film which, in my opinion now that you know all this, will take on a deeper meaning. Director Gregory La Cava was well known for letting his actors improvise on the set. Frank Capra once wrote of La Cava that he “was an extreme proponent of inventing scenes on the set. Blessed with a brilliant, fertile mind and a flashing wit, he claimed he could make pictures without scripts.” La Cava would shoot "whatever came to mind" at the moment, while maintaining "a sort of [alcoholic] party atmosphere on the set." (Alcoholism eventually destroyed his career.) Powell said My Man Godfrey "was [really] La Cava's picture. Every morning he'd give us some dialogue that he'd written during the night."

Scripted or not, watch Powell and Lombard during this scene and tell me if you don't see them speaking, beyond their characters, to each other.

(Click here to watch this sequence.)

They are in the kitchen of the Bullocks' home. Irene is helping Godfrey wash the dishes.

"Godfrey: You see, you helped me to find myself, and I'm very grateful.

Irene: You'd make a wonderful husband.

G: I'm afraid not. I know how you feel about things.

I: How?

G: Well, you're grateful to me because I helped you to beat Cornelia, and I'm grateful to you because you helped me to beat life. But that doesn't mean that we have to fall in love.

I: If you don't want to, but I'd make a wonderful wife.

G: Well, not for me, I'm afraid. You see, I like you very much. But I had a very bitter experience. But I won't bore you with that.

I: Maybe she wasn't in love with you.

G: Well, maybe not. However, that's beside the point. You and I are friends. I feel a certain responsibility to you. That's why I wanted to tell you first.

I: Tell me what?

G: Well, I thought it was about time that I was moving on.

I: Godfrey!

G: Now, please.

I: I won't cry, I promise.

G: That's fine. After all, I'm your protégé. You want me to improve myself?

I: Yes.

G: You don't want me to go on being just a butler all my life, do you?

I: I want you to be anything you want.

G: Well, that's very sweet.

I: When are you leaving?

G: Oh, pretty soon. But I'll call you up every now and then. We'll have long chats. I'll tell you how I'm getting on

While some of the dialogue might, in real life, be reversed – she the protégé – it echoes back to their own relationship, their marriage, and their continued friendship. And even later when she tells Godfrey, “You love me, and you know it. There's no sense in struggling against a thing when it's got you. That's all there is to it” – I get the sense Powell and Lombard knew it too.

My Man Godfrey won Oscar nominations for Powell, Lombard, both Mischa Auer and Alice Brady in the Best Supporting Actor categories, La Cava for his direction, and Eric Hatch & Morrie Ryskind for the script. Sadly, it took home none.


"The only difference between a derelict and a man is a job."

My Man Godfrey wasn't the only movie made during the Depression which focused on the homeless problem in New York. Hollywood put out several other films, including the drama One More Spring and the Al Jolson musical comedy Hallelujah, I'm a Bum.

But it wasn't just fodder for script story lines. Homelessness and unemployment were a devastating reality during the Great Depression. Several camps, as depicted in My Man Godfrey sprung up around New York City, which were known collectively as Hoovervilles (in "honor" of President Herbert Hoover). The one recreated in the film, known as Hardlucksville, at one point had 80 shacks along the East River, between 9th and 10th Streets.

Hardlucksville, as depicted in My Man Godfrey

The REAL Hardlucksville, NYC 1930's

In their book, The Park and the People: A History of Central Park, the authors paint a picture of the Hooverville in the park:

"The [New York] Times reporter who visited the men painted a much more charitable portrait than had been given in previous accounts of 'tramps and 'vagrants' in the park. He described his guide to the colony as 'sincere' and 'affable' and emphasized the small domestic comforts in the shack the park dweller shared with two other men: wall bunks, a bed, two large chairs, a homemade stove, three dishes, two ornamented water pitchers, and bits of carpet on the floor.

"By September 1932, 17 completed houses sat on the reservoir site, and for more were under construction. Ramshackle huts sat beside more substantial structures. Three unemployed bricklayers had used abandoned building materials to erect a 20-foot high brick structure....

"The squatters themselves offered entertainment to the increasingly large crowds who came to see the park's latest attraction. One man played the flute and collected coins from passersby. Ralph Redfield, an unemployed vaudeville tightwire walker who lived with several others in an abandoned water main, set up a wire and did daily shows. Even New Yorkers who just read in the newspapers about the community, which residents and reporters dubbed 'Hoover Valley,' 'Shanty Town,' 'Squatter's Village,' and Forgotten Man's Gulch' probably enjoyed the stories as a diversion from their own depression woes.

"Despite the light, almost romantic press coverage of the squatters, they were a symbol of a serious local and national problem. More than 1.2 million Americans were homeless in the winter of 1932-1933. At least 2000 homeless New Yorkers preferred life in the city's more than 20 different squatter villages to that of the overcrowded and tightly regulated missions and municipal lodging houses [New York City's population at the time was about 7 million]. 'These queer communities,' a Times reporter wrote of the Hoovervilles, 'look, frankly, like the resorts of tramps But most of the men are masters of trade and proud of their skill. Some are professional men, college trained.' City authorities were periodically 'urged by indignant citizens of standing to run the campers out.' Such complaints by property owners along Fifth Avenue may have been the reason for some arrests and a health department investigation at the reservoir Hooverville in the fall of 1932. And even the mayor declared, 'I cannot see that the camps constitute a nuisance of menace to health.'"

Eventually, however, the 1% of the time got their way. The homeless were run out and the area within the park was developed. Where the homeless went, I don't know.

What I do know is that in April of this year, The Coalition for the Homeless reported more than 43,000 homeless individuals – including 17,000 children, an all-time monthly high – stayed in shelters each night in New York City. You can visit the Coalition's web site to find out what you might be able to do to help.


Vatrushki are from Eastern European and are described as "a small, personal-sized open pie filled with fresh cheese. Its appearance somewhat resembles that of a cheese Danish, but it is not the same pastry." They were typically made for holidays or special occasions, and can be made either sweet (with sugar and fruit) or savory (with spices and onion), and sometimes are filled with poppy seeds rather than cheese. "In the old days, we used to put the poppy seeds in boiling water, put through sieve, grind them and mix with sugar or honey," said Sister Eleanor Grin of the St. Panteleimon's Russian Orthodox Church in Hartford, Connecticut.

As for Mr. Powell's original recipe, it is, in the fashion of the time, kind of murky on details. For starters, all he notes is "Prepare rich pastry." I decided to hunt down dough recipes for Vatrushki online and unfortunately I found a few. Unfortunately, because each one was radically different from the other. So I chose one and adapted it. Also, Powell's filling was pretty straight-forward (and by that I mean a bit bland), so I've opted to modify his recipe with the addition of about 2/3'rds more sugar, the vanilla, cinnamon, and raisins. Feel free to drop them out, if you wish.

The wonderful gals over at Silver Screen Suppers have also tried their hands at this recipe, and went a little savory by adding some herbs to the filling.

Finally, Mr. Powell suggests after rolling the dough into small rounds and putting the cheese mix in the center, "pinch edges together to form a low cup with the cheese in the middle." But the way I made them seems to be a more traditional way to prepare them.

As always, cook, watch, eat & enjoy!

William Powell's Vatrouskis (Vatrushki)
adapted from a recipe by Mr. Powell in Famous Recipes By Famous People, compiled & edited by Herbert Cerwin
Click Here for Printer-Friendly Version

Yields 12 pastries

for the Dough:
1/2 cup warm water
1 packet active dry yeast (always use the freshest yeast)
1/4 teaspoon sugar
4 cups all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons sugar
1 large egg
1/2 cup warm milk
1/2 teaspoon salt

for the Filling:
1 pound large curd cottage cheese (or farmers or whole-milk ricotta cheese)
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon butter, melted
3 tablespoons sugar
1 large egg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup raisins, soaked in warm water for 10 minutes
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 large egg - for egg wash

Pour cheese into cheese cloth and squeeze excess liquid out.

Mix water, yeast, and 1/4 teaspoon of sugar in a small bowl or measuring cup. If yeast doesn't start bubbling after five minutes, get fresh yeast and start again.

In a mixing bowl or processor with a dough hook, add flour, warm milk, 1 egg, salt, sugar, and yeast mixture. Pulse or stir to combine. When dough forms into a wet ball (you may need to add a drop more flour if it's too wet - if it sticks to your hands, that means it's too wet), cover and let rise until it doubles in size (30-40 minutes).

Meanwhile, in a separate bowl add 1 egg, cheese, sour cream, melted butter, sugar, salt, vanilla, and raisins. Stir to combine. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Preheat over to 400*F.

When dough is ready, divide into twelve pieces and roll them into balls. Place on a nonstick (or greased) baking pan. Slightly flatten out each dough ball into something resembling a hockey puck. Put a pinch of flour in the center of each puck, then using the bottom of a regular sized drinking glass (make sure the bottom is flat not indented), make a deep depression in each (careful not to cut the dough apart - if that happens, simply re-roll into ball and start over). Now fill the depression with some cheese mixture (don't overstuff).

Brush the edges of each with the egg wash then bake for 25-30 minutes until golden.

Carole Lombard Fan Page
A Loud Cheer for the Screwball Girl, by Noel F. Busch @ Life magazine (1938)
William Powell Fan Page

My Man Godfrey (The Criterion Collection) DVD
My Man Godfrey, by Eric Hatch (the original novel)
Gentleman: The William Powell Story, by Charles Francisco
Screwball: The life of Carole Lombard, by Larry Swindell
Carole Lombard: The Hoosier Tornado (Indiana Biography Series), by Wes D. Gehring
The Name Above The Title, by Frank Capra
It Took Nine Tailors, by Adolphe Menjou & MM Musselman
The Park and the People: A History of Central Park, Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar
Famous Recipes By Famous People, compiled & edited by Herbert Cerwin

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