In great movies, it's no mystery the butler did it

  • Follow Steven Uhles

I'll admit to the occasional pang of envy when observing the lives of the idle rich. I try not to be a materialistic guy but I have to confess that the established image of the well-pressed and beautiful tooling around in exotic cars, jet-set traveling or just relaxing by the pool, with cocktail in hand, seems pretty nice to me.

Were I suddenly thrust into the echelons of excessive wealth, however, I'm sure I would have to draw the line at a butler.

There's something about having a guy who lays out my clothes, responds to my whims at the ring of a bell and announces when dinner is served that seems a little too structured, too controlled for my taste.

It should be noted, however, that I've never actually met a butler, so all my information and impressions come from the movies. Below are five I particularly enjoyed.

MY MAN GODFREY (1936): A slightly unstrung socialite hires a forgotten soul she discovers in a dump to become her family's butler. The wonder of this film is that rather than developing into a standard fish-out-of-water comedy, Godfrey defies expectations, offering emotional depth, a sense of humanity and unexpected narrative turns instead. William Powell stars as the gallant Godfrey, and the always enchanting Carole Lombard is his employer.

SUNSET BLVD. (1950): Norma Desmond, an actress once famous and beloved, has retreated from the world. Her only human contact comes from her butler, Max, who was once both her husband and director.

Wow. That must be awkward.

As unlikely as the relationship sounds, it's an integral part of one of cinema's great black comedies. The film stars Gloria Swanson (who will show up again later in this column) as Desmond, Erich Von Stroheim as Max and William Holden as Joe Gillis, a writer adopted and/or held captive by the household.

ARTHUR (1981): Dudley Moore plays a playboy heir to a fabulous fortune whose position in life offers him no incentive to grow up. His only grounding influence is his butler, Hobson (what a great butler name), played by John Gielgud. Although sometimes criticized for being an extended comic riff on drunkenness, this comedy actually has a great deal of heart and class.

MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN (1936): The rare Gary Cooper comedy, Mr. Deeds finds the cinema hero playing Longfellow Deeds, a simple Vermont tuba player who inherits a surprise fortune. As he tries to navigate the treacherous world of big money and high society, he looks to his slightly stuffy but well-meaning butler, Walter, for guidance. One of the better Frank Capra comedies.

MALE AND FEMALE (1919): I told you Gloria Swanson would be back. In this silent film directed by the legendary Cecil B. DeMille, she plays a socialite stranded on a deserted island with her butler. As she and her servant fight to survive, they find that the roles society has bestowed upon them begin to shift. An interesting and surprisingly sophisticated drama from the very early days of cinema.

Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or steven.uhles@augustachronicle.com.


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