February 9th, 2013

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Irene Bullock: Mother of all MPDGs?

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OK, so you probably know that Irene Bullock is the character Carole Lombard portrayed in "My Man Godfrey," but we don't see her as a mother in the movie (imagine a "Godfrey" sequel where she actually had children!). And what the heck is an "MPDG"?

Well, it's an acronym for "Manic Pixie Dream Girl," a term that's come to the fore in recent romantic comedies. Think of Zooey Deschanel in "(500) Days Of Summer":

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Reviewer Nathan Rabin of the A.V. Club website coined the phrase in January 2007, referring to Kirsten Dunst's character in "Elizabethtown." Rabin describes the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, or MPDG, as someone who "exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family."

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So what does this have to do with "Godfrey," you ask? It turns out that this week, the A.V. Club decided to write about "Godfrey" as part of the theme of characters operating under false identities, as in the new comedy "Identity Thief" (http://www.avclub.com/articles/1936s-my-man-godfrey-is-a-depressionera-fantasy-ne,92210) -- and reviewer Tasha Robinson, while effusive about the film and its actors, makes this intriguing observation:

"'My Man Godfrey' is a slick, quickly moving comedy that still plays elegantly today, though Lombard is an oddity in today’s cinema world: a Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose romantic interest doesn’t need rescuing, isn’t impressed by her antics, and repeatedly shuts her down."

As you might guess, this led to some comments from readers:

"I would dispute the designation of Carole Lombard as a MPDG. She always had too much self-awareness for that."

"I'd argue that the Lombard performance closest to an MPDG would be the one from 'Twentieth Century,' but in general she's usually way too smart and witty for the designation."

"Well, then, let's just call her the first MDG. Manic Dream Girl, and oh yes, yes she was most certainly (sigh)."

"I think even the ditziest characters from 30s/40s romances avoid MPDG status. There's always some excuse for the ditziness -- too rich and coddled being a common one. The women usually are aware of that and feel powerless because of it."

"MPDGs are self-aware -- they don't have an inner life, maybe, but are fully aware of their role in helping that guy from 'Scrubs' cheer up. Lombard is not only the archetypal MPDG in this movie, she is probably the first MPDG in history. What makes this film unique, as noted in the review, is how Powell reacts to her."

"Lombard's character is too much of a spoiled cry-baby to be an MPDG, and she is thus much funnier and more human than any MPDG. She has more to learn from Godfrey than he has to learn from her."

"I think the MPDG thing is mostly about relationship -- the girl is there to be taken (physically, emotionally, etc). She's a bottomless well from which the male character gets to drink and revive himself. In contrast, the relationship here is about give and take. Godfrey actually puts up with her as much as he falls in love with her, and she in turn tones down under his influence while also giving him more joie de vivre."

"Yeah, I think the whole MPDG thing comes from the fantasies of a particular mopey, passive, whiny, emo type of guy, who just didn't exist in the '30s."

"Lombard is NOT a manic pixie dream girl. She's a 'dizzy dame.' She exists for herself or for comedy. MPDGs exist for men. Difference."

Good point on that last one. Would anyone have defined one of Teri Garr's comedic characters from the 1980s as a "manic pixie dream girl"? I think not. And the very idea of "emo" in the 1930s can't help but bring forth a smile.

So, where do you stand on the subject? Was Carole a MPDG some 70 years before the term was coined? (Of course, whether or not she was, there were pixies in "Godfrey" -- Irene's mother saw them.) If you're not sure of Irene's status, dig "Godfrey" out from your DVD collection or find it online (it's in the public domain).

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