On April 11, 1936 the Lake Theatre opened in Oak Park with a single screen and a seating capacity of 1,750. Theaters were huge in those days long before today’s much smaller multiplexes. The opening was surely a hot topic of conversation for Oak Parkers. Designed by Thomas Lamb, the Lake was a great example of the art deco style.
The Lake is celebrating its 75th Anniversary this year, and to remember that opening, it is showing a series of movies played in 1936. These movies are screened on the 2nd Monday of each month at 1PM and 7PM. June’s offering is the screwball comedy “My Man Godfrey” playing on June 13. Admission is $5.00. These will be rare opportunities to see old movies on the big screen.
Oak Parkers in 1936 probably welcomed a comedy to take their minds off the tough times. In 1936, the nation was still in the midst of The Great Depression. Unemployment, which had peaked at 25% in 1933, was still a very high 17% in 1936. President Roosevelt was completing his first term. Oak Parkers were probably marveling at the completion of the reengineering masterpiece Hoover Dam. Bruno Hauptman, the murderer of Lindberg’s baby, was executed. In April, killer tornados had roared through Tupelo, Mississippi and Gainesville, Georgia killing hundreds. Huey Long had been assassinated the previous fall. And ominously, Nazis Germany, in violation of the Treaty of Versailles, had re-occupied the Rhineland. Soon, Oak Parkers would have something much worse than unemployment to worry about.
So a movie like “My Man Godfrey” might be just the thing to take your mind off the troubles of the world. Moviegoers would not have been disappointed. The story is set in the 1930’s so viewers would have first hand knowledge of the situations depicted. Godfrey “Smith” (William Powell) is living in the city dump. One night, two spoiled sisters in search of a “forgotten man” for a scavenger hunt come to the dump. The snooty older sister Cornelia Bullock (Gail Patrick) offers 5 bucks to Godfrey to be her scavenger hunt “find”. An angry Godfrey advances on her causing her to fall. She rushes off in a huff, but the younger sister, Irene (Carole Lombard), befriends Godfrey. One thing leads to another and Godfrey helps Irene win the contest, then a grateful Irene offers Godfrey a job as the family’s butler.
It turns out that Godfrey is really the son of a wealthy Boston family and Harvard graduate who, following a devastating breakup, was going to jump in the river until the homeless guys at the dump befriended him and saved his life. The ditzy Irene falls in love with Godfrey who keeps his identity secret from her, and must avoid her increasingly amorous advances. Cornelia wants Godfrey as well, but when he rejects her, Cornelia tries to frame him with a stolen necklace, but Godfrey is too smart for her.
He uses the necklace as collateral to redeem the Bullock family’s corporate pledged stock so the family can avoid bankruptcy. Then, Godfrey quits his butler job and opens a swanky nightclub where the dump used to be, providing employment to his homeless pals. Irene tracks him down at the nightclub and they get married. Completely implausible. utterly charming.
This movie is vintage screwball comedy, one of the very best of the genre. The theme of reverse-class snobbery where the poor are noble and the rich are stupid and foolish is typical. There is the combination of slapstick and sophisticated wordplay and repartee. Everyone looks so sophisticated in their tuxes and gowns. The mind reels to think how our 1936 audience would react to Hangover II!
“My Man Godfrey” was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress– and yet it was not nominated for Best Picture! It is the only picture in history to claim that dubious distinction.
Carole Lombard lived only a few more years. The promising career that made her the highest paid actress in Hollywood ended in a plane crash in 1942 when she was only 34 years old. At the time of her death she was married to Clark Gable. William Powell, who had been married to Miss Lombard, is today best remembered as Nick Charles, the crime solving husband of wife- partner Nora in “The Thin Man” series of movies — their dog, Asta, shows up frequently as a crossword answer.
For seventy five years, men and women and boys and girls have come to the Lake Theatre. The audience in 1936, no different from today, share the same fears of unemployment, weather disaster and looming wars. But they buy their popcorn, sodas and candy and sit down in the dark with strangers, each of whom brings his own unique accumulation of experience, prejudices, worries and dreams to the theater. But no matter how troubled or mundane the quotidian existence of our lives, together we sit and watch the stories unfold on that giant screen. Some of the stories are funny, some are sad; some are inspiring, and some are tragic; some are merely diverting trivialities; the very best of them are transformative. We leave the theater better people. Of life’s many pleasures, surely watching a movie in a big darkened theater is one of the best. May these movies and this movie experience always be with us.