Wednesday, November 28, 2012

"My Man Godfrey" Presents: The Dos and Don’ts of Manliness

  (Inspired by the 'Lessons in Manliness' feature from The Art of Manliness)

Follow these instructions and you can be the man in that mirror!
                  I am assuming you’ve all seen the wonderful 1936 comedy My Man Godfrey, starring Carole Lombard and William Powell, right? About the ditsy-yet-sweet society girl who hires a “forgotten man” from the city dump to serve as butler to her insane family? Well, if you haven’t, go see it now. For one thing, it’s a great movie with excellent performances by its two stars and entire supporting cast. For another, the sight of Carole Lombard dancing around her bedroom in a soaking wet dress screaming “Godfrey loves me; he put me in the shower!” will add years to your life (for another, it's available for free on YouTube).
                  For today, however, I want to focus on what might be my favorite character in the film: Carlo (played by the great character actor Mischa Auer). Carlo is wealthy Mrs. Bullock’s ‘protégé,’ which is a nice way of saying that he mooches free room and board off of the family in exchange for repeatedly playing a single song on the piano and swooning in agony whenever anyone (usually Mr. Bullock) mentions anything practical; like money, and why they’re paying for this bizarre little milquetoast con-man to live with them.

The One and Only
                  Carlo is, in short, a compact collection of “don’ts” for being a real man. He’s lazy, dishonest, thin-skinned, entitled, and weak. At one point, at Mrs. Bullock’s request, he ruffles up his hair and starts climbing all over the room imitating a gorilla, to which Mr. Bullock (the inimitable Eugene Pallette) snaps “why don’t you stop imitating a gorilla and start imitating a man?”
                  In our attempt to be the best possible versions of ourselves, we must avoid the trap of becoming a Carlo. To avoid this most terrible of fates, keep these six simple rules in mind:

                  Mooch off of other people
                  Be it your parents, the government, or the rich idiots who adore you for no reason, a real man pays his own way. Oh, yes; in hard times he may be obliged to accept a little help here and there, but he hates it and gets out of it as soon as he can. A real man can take care of himself and his own, and he will make any sacrifice and run any risk in order to do so. If you’re living in another man’s house, eating another man’s food, or having your life paid for by another man’s taxes, you’d better have a damn good reason for doing so (Good Reason: the company I worked for has just gone under and I need help. Bad Reason: I’m taking time off until I ‘find myself’) and be working your ass off trying to get out of there.

                  Get a job
                  One thing I’m struck by in Depression-era flicks is that, while they tend to scorn the rich and idolize the poor, they always show the unemployed as wanting jobs; not charity. They hate having to take hand-outs. They really want to be able to take care of themselves; they simply don’t have the opportunity to. “The difference between a man and a derelict,” says Godfrey, “is a job.”
                  A real man is either holding or seeking a job. Yes, times are tough and jobs are scarce. But keep trying; work on your resume, develop new skills, and keep knocking on doors and asking for work. Brainstorm ideas to form your own business. Build a flippin’ lemonade stand if you have to. Do whatever it takes to stand on your own feet.
                  A Carlo wants a hand out; a real man wants a job.

                  Exaggerate your talents
                  Carlo presents himself as an intellectual artiste. In reality, his skills consist of a single (incomplete) piano piece and a fair gorilla imitation. Basically, he’s just talented enough to make foolish people like Mrs. Bullock believe he’s more talented than he is. Sensible people, like Mr. Bullock, see through him in an instant but, of course, the former group won’t hear a word against him.
There’s a word for this, and it’s called ‘lying.’  Carlo’s basically running a con where, for a sappy piano number a night he gets free room and board. Real men don’t lie, and they don’t make themselves out to be something they are not.

                  Be humble
                  A real man doesn’t have to boast and doesn’t have to exaggerate; he knows what he’s capable of and knows that, if his skills are called for, he can produce them. He doesn’t put on an act to convince people he’s something special and that they should defer to him; he simply does his duty to the extent that he is able.
                  Godfrey is a good example of this. It’s no spoiler to say that he’s more than a simple derelict, or that he’s got a few secrets up his sleeve, but the point is precisely that he doesn’t make a big deal out of it. He’s engaged as a butler, and he performs his duty as well as he is able. When the need arises, he showcases some of his other talents, such as his gift for witty repartee, or his financial astuteness, but he doesn’t draw attention to them; he doesn’t need to. He knows who he is and where he’s going, so why would he put on a show for people?
                  A Carlo creates the illusion of competence; a real man doesn’t have to.

                  Play the victim
                  Carlo has two responses to any criticism from Mr. Bullock; the first is to sit in wounded silence and glower. The second is to affect an agonized swoon and lament the insidious effects of “money! The Frankenstein monster that destroys souls!” prompting Mrs. Bullock to remonstrate her husband with “you’re upsetting Carlo!”
                  Of course, being Carlo, he can’t very well respond suitably to Mr. Bullock, since there is no suitable response; Mr. Bullock is completely in the right to despise Carlo. So, since he lacks the courage to either do the right thing or to at least stand up for himself, he plays the victim and leeches off of other people’s sympathy.

                  Stand up like a Man
                  In contrast to Carlo, Godfrey doesn’t take disrespect from anyone. When Cornelia (Gail Patrick) the elder, more snobbish Bullock sister, rudely tries to coerce him into helping her win a scavenger hunt, he plays the “dangerous homeless man” card for all its worth, scaring off her and her boyfriend. Later, when Cornelia asks Godfrey to tell him what he really thinks of her (expecting him to lavish her with expressions of affection), he lays it on her:
You belong to that unfortunate category that I would call the "Park Avenue brat". A spoiled child who's grown up in ease and luxury... who's always had her own way... and who's misdirected energies are so childish that they hardly deserve the comment, even of a butler on his off Thursday.”
Godfrey is always ready and willing to tell people exactly what he thinks, and doesn’t care tuppence for the consequences. He’s been at the bottom of the heap, and he’s survived it. He knows men who really are victims, but who take it in stride. He’ll be damned if he feels sorry for himself or lets anyone else push him around.
A Carlo plays the victim; a real man stands up for himself. 

Be a Man: upset Carlo! 
Now that's more like it, right Irene?
                  Vive Christus Rex!

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