Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Watch This Movie: My Man Godfrey

Who me? A flair for the dramatic? Well, perhaps a little. I tried acting in Junior High. While I wasn't bad, I also wasn't going to win any awards either. So, I guess that I decided to pursue drama in other areas of my life, and what I found is that drama in interiors has fewer consequences and produces fewer headaches than drama in other areas of one's life. We're talking guilt-free drama. Don't you agree?

Perhaps this explains my fascination with set decoration, especially that from the 1930s. One of my favorite sets is that of My Man Godfrey, a 1936 screwball comedy starring William Powell and Carole Lombard. We all know that on movie sets, everything has to be bigger and larger than life in order to register on film. There's drama in scale, color, and in the case of films from the 1930s and 40s, in quirky decorative details too. I think it's this pastiche that captivates me. I mean, on the one hand, it's a little tacky, but it's also charming in an exuberant and hopeful kind of way.

If I had the space, I would seriously consider decorating a few rooms in the spirit of my favorite 1930s movies. Sure people might think I had lost control of my mental faculties, but it would be fun. And more importantly, it would be a most proper venue in which to wear my satin bed jackets, something which recently amused a friend who was touring my house. Who knows, I might even graduate to marabou
bed jackets soon à la Carole Lombard. Because you know, I just can't give up the drama.

Do you think this would be ridiculous to wear for lounging and sleeping?

My favorite era of kitchen design is the 1930s. How many kitchens have you seen with such glitz? I'm taken with that chrome trim on the walls.

A kitchen like this would not be complete with a charming butler, plenty of silver serving pieces, and a battalion of cocktail glasses.

Here is a better shot of that modernist handrail that was in the kitchen.

1930s sets were filled with decorative oddities like painted motifs that were stuck everywhere...on doors, screens, walls. Plaster reliefs were also popular- like this one that adorned a door. I think this beats your average paneled door any day.

Something else that fascinates me are 1930s bathrooms. Note the frosted glass shower door; it looks like it has an underwater theme to it. I think I see fish.

Fireplaces were always ripe for high drama. This baroque fantasy had that large circular mirror complete with that plaster figure on a bracket. It's so....theatrical.

A white klismos chair in the spirit of T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings.

Calla lilies were huge during this decade; this arrangement has me rethinking them.

It might be a little difficult to see, but take a look at that register (or is it a radiator cover?) underneath the window. I think that something like this needs to be put back into production, although I know that the pat answer would be that it costs too much.

This diamond and circular trellis is quintessential Hollywood. It almost looks like a bird cage.

(All images from My Man Godfrey, Universal Pictures)


  1. Great post - it almost makes me want to live in black and white. I wish it were possible to know which colors were used in the decor,if they were part of a coherent decorating scheme or chosen for how they translated to black and white.

  2. Your comment about the registers just reminded me of the first time my mother and I toured a few mansions in Newport. In the first room of one of them, there are massive, ornate, gold registers. I can't imagine how much they cost to produce for the mansion, but I imagine it'd cost a fortune to replicate them today.

  3. Great post! I'm a nut for classic films and sets as well. The fireplace in this film has always fascinated me. The way the mirror cuts into the mantle shelf -amazing!

  4. Blue, my guess is that colors were chosen based on how they would work in B&W. However, I very well could be wrong.

  5. Jeannine- That's the trouble today...everything costs a fortune to produce!

  6. Scott- That fireplace is fascinating because it's so weird, for lack of a better term!

  7. I love this moive-feel in love with both these actors in my 20's. The movie sets are such fantasy, it is fun to compare them to movies of today with there take of sets. I am working on a powder bath that will have a bit of an art deco feel. I have read that Elsie de Wolfe devised the decorative radiator cover, she could fix just about anything. Ah- and that kitchen, it would have to come replete housekeeper to keep the chrome (and silver) polished. Great post thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  8. Ron ( the Netherlands)10:16 AM

    I love your posts on old B&W movies and you seem to pick out the same details that fascinated me too.
    I have never seen this movie but I will get it now.
    Fireplace; Amazing!!! Next client will get this ....and they will have no say in it !!
    Radiator cover;
    Does not have to be too expensive, just have it lasered out of any metal. I just had grilles made to cover duct slots in my showroom. I send in my own design.
    Keep your set revieuws comming...I'll be sitting front row !!
    Ron ( empel collections ) in Holland

  9. Oh yes, I will watch I love a film like this Of course so many of my favorites are Film Noir, Hitchcock etc.

    Art by Karena

  10. Ah, William Powell, the perfect man. I love The Thin Man films, too. And Carole Lombard and John Barrymore in Twentieth Century--talk about drama! She was so wonderful.
    I should watch this one again. The sets are definitely the bomb!

  11. magnaverde2:02 PM

    Nice going, Jennifer. My Man Godfrey is one of my favorite movies and the sets are a big part of it, although another factor was that I got to know Gail Patrick back when I was working my way through college as a waiter, and she was the most glamorous woman in Peoria, Illinois. The night that she & her new husband--a local businessman--appeared in my station at Peoria's only 3-star restaurant, I had no idea who she was, but it was clear she was Somebody. The hostess had to explain who she was, and it was another ten years before I finally saw My Man Godfrey (during which time Patrick died), but even if I hadn't loved the humor & great sets & beautiful opening credits, I would have enjoyed the movie for Patrick's preformance.

    Not long ago I was talking to someone--online, of course, since I have not a single real-life friend who cares a whit about such stuff--about the cool kitchen and I couldn't find a single decent shot of what I was looking for. You've managed to assemble all the best features, including one you show but didn't comment on: the sleek white metal Venetian blinds. Venetian blinds had already been around for a few hundred years and no one ever paid them much heed, but they went from zero to sixty in 1934, when director Mark Sandrich used them in the "The Gay Divorcee". After that, they were all over the place.

    BTW, the question of the 'real' colors we see in those sets: somewhere I remmeber seeing a short clip of somebody's home movie taken on the set of a 193Os film, and walls & floors that read on film read as lustrous black-&-white were painted all mannner of odd colors--rust, bright blue & yellow, and none of the upholstery matched anything else. But the finished effect, of course, was sublime.

  12. Thanks Ron! Of course you would figure out a way to make register covers!

  13. Magna- I also believe that Patrick was from Birmingham. She was one of the most elegant and patrician looking actresses of that era. The fact that you got to meet her just thrills me!

  14. I love it all too. There is a fantasy-like quality that the decor of other eras lacks.
    I was in a house with a kitchen like that a few years ago while house-hunting. Lots of chrome and butter yellow formica, totally cat's PJs! Down the stairs were two swinging, tufted naugahide doors leading to a built-in art deco bar that was all intact. Including the built in table and bench.
    I did not by it, but I wonder if the people who did left it there.

  15. Kerry- That house sounds right up my alley! I bet it all got ripped out. Those type of houses always end up in the hands of people who don't appreciate them.

  16. Anonymous8:10 PM

    Four AM channel surfing landed me a great find a couple of weeks ago in the form of a 30's madcap comedy of manners entitled, 'Merrily We Live'. The plot was a delight, involving a daffy society matron, her household staff and an ex con. This movie was a such a blast, but it was the set and decor that had me panting! Although I'm not sure, I presume it's available to rent.

  17. Being an actress/designer I share your obsession for old movie interiors. A great movie set can make me loose complete track of the story!

  18. I'm not familiar with "Merrily We Live"; I'm off to see if it's on Netflix.

  19. Please tell me you really do have satin bed jackets! I love living life as if in a movie (even if no one else is watching!)
    I can't wait to get this on Netflix!!

  20. Thank You- Oh yes, I have not one but two satin bed jackets!

  21. Fabulous design on the radiator covers and you are probably right...too expensive.

    Great post. One of my favorite movies also.

  22. Fascinating to see all those details. In England Art Deco was sometimes called 'Curzon Street Baroque', and looking at the fireplace in this film one is reminded how apt that is: the curves and the overlapping planes are just like a facade by Borromini.

  23. I grew up watching these oldies! I was entranched by every detail even as a young girl! LOVE IT!

  24. I dreamed about this house for years!

  25. Shouldn't you mention the man that created the sets? Charles D. Hall was the art director. He started as a production designer in 1918 and worked on everything from Charlie Chaplin's "The Kid", to "Dracula", as well as "The Phantom of the Opera", "Show Boat" (both the 1929 and 1936 versions), "Frankenstein" and "Topper Takes A Trip". The set decorator is uncredited, but you know there was someone running around getting all the furniture, lamps, accessories, perfume bottles and all that silver. Travis Banton created Carole Lombard's gowns...and bed jackets.

  26. one of my favorite movies of all time. The kitchen was always my favorite room in this film.

  27. Anonymous5:24 PM

    Hi Jennifer,

    "My Man Godfrey" is one of my favorite movies because of the beautiful sets. They don't make them like they use to. That beautiful fireplace alone makes the movie worth watching.

    Have you ever seen "Dinner at Eight"? It reminds me of "My Man Godfrey" in a way. The sets are very grand and imaginative. I took some screen shots of the movie and uploaded them to my blog, you can see them here
    Aren't those room gorgeous?


  28. One of my all time favorite movies! I think I was born into the wrong era! Thanks for your fabulous photos. xo