David Niven goes a Second Time Around: Why Hollywood remade classic films of the 1930s

Hollywood is well-known for recycling old material, but it isn’t always for lack of new ideas.


One of the pleasures I get from YouTube, and some other free streaming services, is watching classic old movies that I would never otherwise have access to. It was while indulging in this pleasure that I noticed that David Niven, one of my favourite old Hollywood stars (not least because of his delightful memoires), had starred in two remakes of classic 1930s films — Raffles and My Man Godfrey. I was intrigued to explore why these remakes had been produced and what changes had occurred in the process.

Spoiler Alert: I’ll be discussing these films in full, including the endings.

Raffles (1930 and 1939)


Poster for Raffles (1930) showing Ronald Colman and Kay Francis
Raffles 1930

The first version of Raffles was made in 1930 staring Ronald Colman as Raffles and Kay Francis as Gwen. In 1939 David Niven starred as Raffles opposite Olivia de Havilland as Gwen. (Both versions can be seen on Kanopy.)

AJ Raffles is a popular cricketer and man about town, but he also leads a secret life as an accomplished and daring thief with a Robin Hood complex, who enjoys tormenting the London police by leaving handwritten notes at the scene of the crime signed by ‘The Amateur Cracksman’. When Raffles decides to marry Gwen, the love of his life, he is determined to give up his criminal activities, but just as he makes this decision, his dear friend Bunny comes to him in desperate trouble. Bunny has paid a £1,000 gambling debt by fraudulent means and must replace the money by Monday if he is to avoid criminal prosecution and ruin.

Raffles has no choice but to call on his criminal talents one last time to help his friend. He joins a weekend country house party given by Lord and Lady Melrose where he plans to steal Lady Melrose’s precious jewelled necklace. However, this will not be an easy task. That same weekend, a burglar called Crawshaw also has plans to steal the necklace, while Inspector Mackenzie of Scotland Yard has certain suspicions which he arrives to put to Lord Melrose. Alerted to the possibility of a break-in, Lord Melrose activates the house’s alarm system.

In the night, while on his way to trying to steal the necklace from Lady Melrose’s room, Raffles sees Crawshaw come out of the bedroom and takes the necklace from him. Attempting to escape the house, Crawshaw sets off the alarm and wakes up the household. Crawshaw is caught, but while he doesn’t tell the police that Raffles took the necklace, he now harbours a grudge against him. Despite his suspicions of Raffles, Inspector Mackenzie gives him leave to return to London the following morning.

Gwen is also a guest at the house party and her suspicions of Raffles are confirmed when he tells Mackenzie he was in his room when the alarm went off while Gwen knows he wasn’t. When she overhears Mackenzie tell his colleague to let Crawshaw escape, thus setting a thief to catch a thief, Gwen goes to Raffles’ apartment in London to warn him. However, she has come too late. Crawshaw has been spotted in the building and it is now crawling with police. In several ingenious manoeuvres, Raffles is able to outsmart the police, allowing Crawshaw to get away, arranging for Bunny to return the necklace to Lord Melrose and claim a £1,000 reward, and escaping himself wearing Inspector Mackenzie’s distinctive greatcoat.

The police think they have Raffles when they spot a figure in the greatcoat through the fog, but the coat has been draped over a police telephone box and bears a note to Mackenzie sighed by ‘The Amateur Cracksman’.

This detailed synopsis applies to both versions of Raffles, demonstrating that the differences between the two versions are quite subtle.

The first difference I noticed between them was how well they demonstrate the development of screenwriting techniques in the time between them. Based on a novel and subsequent play, the 1930 screenplay was written by Sydney Howard and adapted for the 1939 version by John Van Druten. (For more details follow the links to IMDb.)

Poster for Raffles (1939) showing David Niven and Olivia De Havilland
Raffles 1939

Van Druten pars down the dialogue and relies more on showing than telling. For example, in 1930 the film opens with groups of people talking about how ‘The Amateur Cracksman’ has thwarted the police and become a popular hero. In 1939 we see ‘The Amateur Cracksman’ carrying out a daring robbery and then sending the proceeds to an impoverished actress he once admired so she can claim the reward. This sequence also sets up the climax when, after acquiring the diamonds, instead of selling them as he planned, Raffles arranges for Bunny to claim the reward. In 1930, Raffles talks at length to Crawshaw to persuade him to turn over the necklace, while in 1939, Raffles ambushes him without a word and wrestles the necklace from the burglar who recognises him later by his watch.

Van Druten also streamlines the action and closes loopholes. In 1930 Crawshaw is at the head of a gang of burglars with inside knowledge whose source we are never told. In 1939, Crawshaw is working alone, but with the assistance of Lady Melrose’s maid. In 1930, Inspector Mackenzie descends on the country house with a whole team of police as he suspects the burglars have plans to break in, again, for no reason we know of. In 1939, Mackenzie goes to the country house alone having discovered a clue that connects the ‘The Amateur Cracksman’ to the house. In 1930, Gwen turns up at the country house out of the blue to be with Raffles, despite having no way of knowing that he had made a last minute decision to go there. In 1939, Gwen is close friends with Lady Melrose who invites her and Raffles for the weekend.

However, it’s hard to believe that Samuel Goldwyn would have gone to the expense of remaking the film after only nine years just to showcase an improved script. So, what could have happened between 1930 and 1939 which would have motivated Goldwyn to remake the film? It is evident from the larger differences between the two films that the real driver for this remake was the implementation of the Hays Code in 1934, which meant that the 1930 version could no longer be shown.

According to the Hays Code, films could not even hint at sex between unmarried couples, characters could not be driven to suicide to escape the consequences of a crime, crime should not be condoned, and no sinner could go unpunished. The implications of these rules can be seen in the changes made in the 1939 version.

In 1930, it is clear that Raffles and Gwen are in a long-standing relationship that is obviously physical, while in 1939 Raffles has admired Gwen from afar since he knew her as a teenager, and they only declare their love in the course of the film. In 1930, Gwen knows that Raffles was not in his room when the alarm went off because she had already entered it, obviously expecting to get into bed with him. In 1939, Gwen opens the door to his room when the alarm goes off to check on him, but he isn’t there.

In 1930, when Gwen goes to warn Raffles, she tells him that she doesn’t care what crime he has committed, she still loves him and will follow him anywhere. In 1939, Gwen goes to warn Raffles, but she is obviously uncomfortable with his life of crime.

In 1930, Raffles agrees to help Bunny after he tries to commit suicide. In 1939, Raffles’ motive for helping Bunny is that he is Gwen’s brother.

In 1930, Raffles escapes from the police after arranging to meet Gwen in Paris. The note he leaves in the greatcoat thanks Mackenzie for its use. In 1939, despite all Raffles’ manoeuvres to outwit and escape the police, including the trick with the greatcoat, the note left in the coat arranges a meeting with Mackenzie later that evening and the film ends with Raffles returning to his apartment to tell Gwen he is giving himself up, much to her joy.

As we can see, John Van Druten was able to smoothly incorporate most of the changes required by the Hays Code except for one. After all, the whole premise of the story is that Raffles is too clever for the police and the last act of the film is all about his successful manoeuvres to escape them and the consequences of his crimes. Van Druten had only two options. He could have dropped the whole of the last act, have Crawshaw dob Raffles in when he is caught and have Mackenzie arrest Raffles on the spot, thus turning the film from a light comedy into a drama. Alternatively, he could maintain the spirit of the film and tack on a silly and gratuitous ending. In choosing the latter he gives us the option of disregarding the final moments of the film!

My Man Godfrey (1936 and 1957)


Poster for My Man Godfrey (1936) showing William Powell and Carole Lombard
My Man Godfrey 1936

The first version of My Man Godfrey was made in 1936 starring William Powell as Godfrey and Carole Lombard as Irene Bullock. In 1957 Godfrey was played by David Niven and Irene Bullock by June Allyson. (Both versions are available on YouTube.)

The 1936 screenplay was written by Morrie Ryskind and Eric Hatch based on the latter’s novel. It was adapted for the 1957 version by Peter Bernais, William Bowers and Everett Freeman. (For more details follow the links to IMDb.)

Wealthy New York socialites, Irene Bullock and her elder sister Cornelia (according to the 1936 version, but changed to Cordelia in 1957), are in fierce competition to win the annual charity scavenger hunt. The hunt takes them to the banks of the East River where Irene meets a scruffy but well-spoken Godfrey. Taking exception to Cornelia’s arrogance and bullying, Godfrey confronts her, causing her to fall into the dirt. This act wins Godfrey her sister’s admiration and gratitude. Irene is immature and scatter-brained, but her kindness and compassion win Godfrey over and he agrees to go with her to the charity ball so she can present him as her find and win the prize, thus beating Cornelia.

At the ball Godfrey meets the rest of the family: their ditzy mother, Angelica, and, Alexander, their morose, businessman father. Also part of the household is Angelica’s protégé, a would-be composer. Hearing that their butler has resigned, Irene offers the job to Godfrey without consulting her family. Godfrey accepts the job and the next morning turns up at the servants’ entrance in immaculate condition, impressing Molly, the Bullock’s cynical and long-suffering maid. Molly introduces Godfrey to the family’s eccentricities and makes it clear she doesn’t expect him to last a day since none of the previous butlers have lasted much longer.

However, Godfrey is a stayer. He proves to be patient, understanding and extremely competent. As Irene’s protégé, he also has her fierce protection against anyone who would dare challenge him, especially her sister. Cornelia acts out her hostility towards Godfrey by playing the disdainful temptress. Godfrey has Cornelia’s number, but he finds it much harder to contend with Irene’s attempts to act out her infatuation for him. Molly, too, falls hopelessly in love with him.

At an afternoon reception, Godfrey finds himself serving hors d’oeuvre to an old friend. He tries to retreat, but his friend will not let him escape. Finally getting Godfrey’s hints, the friend announces that Godfrey was once their butler but left them to be with his five children. This entirely fictitious revelation distresses Irene who immediately and tearfully announces her engagement to a bewildered former beau.

The next day, Godfrey meets his old friend in a fashionable bar and explains why he has given up his former life and ended up as a butler. They are spotted by Cornelia, who arranges for the friend to be called away so she can confront Godfrey. In their polite but hostile exchange, Godfrey tells Cornelia a few home truths, calling her a spoilt ‘Park Avenue brat.’ Furious, Cornelia decides to take her revenge by framing Godfrey for theft. She places a piece of her jewellery under his mattress then calls the police. However, despite coming home drunk from his afternoon off, Godfrey is able to thwart her efforts, so that the police search in vain. Cornelia gives herself away when she demands that the police look under Godfrey’s mattress, so Mr Bullock persuades the police to drop the matter.

Finally, Godfrey decides it is time to leave the Bullocks, but before he goes, he manages to save Mr Bullock from financial ruin and emboldens him to throw Angelica’s protégé out of the house. Godfrey also has kind words of wisdom for the rest of the family, bringing Cornelia to guilty tears when he returns her jewels with forgiveness, prompting her to confess what she did. Irene cannot accept Godfrey’s departure. She goes after him and, despite Godfrey’s objections, arranges for them to be married then and there.

This synopsis encompasses both screenplays, but in doing so it has left several major questions unanswered, such as: What are the Bullock sisters hunting down for their scavenger hunt? How does their hunt take them to the East River? What is Godfrey doing by the river and why is he looking scruffy? Who is the friend attending the afternoon reception? What are Godfrey’s origins and what explanation does he give for ending up as a butler? Why does Godfrey decide to leave the Bullocks? How does he save them from financial ruin? Why does he leave it to his last day to return the jewels? How does Irene arrange for her and Godfrey to be married? How does Godfrey feel about it?

It is in the answers to these questions, and in the characterisation of the Bullocks and their social circle, that we find the changes made to the original screenplay for the 1957 version. As to why the changes were made, since the first version of My Man Godfrey was released in 1936, it cannot be because of the Hays Code. Perhaps, in examining the nature of these changes, we might find some answers.

Poster for My Man Godfrey (1957) showing David Niven and June Allyson
My Man Godfrey 1957

In 1957, the film begins with Irene and Cordelia in a mad car chase as Irene tries to get back the goat Cordelia stole from her. Their chase comes to a stop by the river. The goat escapes and Irene chases it towards the docks where Godfrey is lurking in the shadows, having just jumped ship. Irene explains to Godfrey that she wanted the goat to complete the set of Animal, Vegetable and Mineral that she needs to win the scavenger hunt. Godfrey agrees to be her Animal find, as much as to avoid getting caught as to accommodate her.

In 1936, the film begins with a view of the rubbish dump by the East River at night where unemployed and homeless men, victims of the Great Depression, are living. Godfrey is one of their number, known as ‘Duke’ by his fellows for his aristocratic manners. Irene and Cornelia go to the river to find a ‘forgotten man’, in other words, a desperate and poverty-stricken man, as a find for their scavenger hunt. Godfrey’s decision to go with Irene is partly an act of defiance against her class. At the ball, the socialites are vapid and chaotic. Godfrey despises them and calls them ‘empty-headed nitwits’ and Angelica is a perfect example of her class. When he is presented as Irene’s find, Godfrey is treated with no respect at all, the socialites speaking about and around him, but not to him.

In 1957, the ball is chaotic, but the socialites aren’t quite as vapid. While still treated with less respect than he deserves, Godfrey finds them amusing. Although almost as ditzy as her 1936 counterpart, unlike her, the 1957 Angelica is the organiser of the charity ball, and, we later learn, runs a charity for wayward girls. Her charity work is ineffective, and she doesn’t trust her wayward girls with the family silver, but she is characterised as warm-hearted. In 1936 Angelica treats her protégé like a pet or a court jester, making him act like a gorilla to cheer up Irene when she has one of her crying fits.

In 1936, Irene is childish and manipulative, putting on crying fits when she doesn’t get her own way, acting tragic when she feels slighted by Godfrey, pretending to be unconscious when trying to force him to stay. In 1957 Irene is a little less manipulative and a little bit more mature and self-aware.

A major difference between the two scripts is that in 1936, Godfrey’s friend is Tommy Grey, a member of a rich Bostonian family who recognises Godfrey as a fellow rich Bostonian with whom he went to Harvard. In 1957, Godfrey’s old friend is Francesca Grey, a much-married, European socialite who may once have been Godfrey’s lover. The story he tells them is also completely different.

In 1936, Godfrey tells Tommy that, bitter about a failed relationship with a woman, he went to the East River with thoughts of suicide and there met the homeless men he would live among. Seeing their resilience, he realised that his privileged upbringing had not prepared him for the vicissitudes of real life. He decided to leave his life of privilege for his spiritual improvement, and for the same reason he took the job as the Bullock’s butler.

In 1957, Godfrey has already told Irene that (despite his seeming as British as they come) he is Austrian (and yes, Irene immediately asks him if he had a pet kangaroo). Godfrey expands on that with Francesca. His father was the Austrian Ambassador in London and Godfrey was educated and worked in England until, with the outbreak of the Second World War, they were expelled from the country and returned to Austria. Godfrey was conscripted to the Luftwaffe and made to bomb the country he loved. Traumatised and with nothing to go back to after the war, Godfrey took up a nomadic life, including working as a sailor which was what brought him to America, albeit illegally. He accepted the job as it provided a home and protection.

In 1936, Godfrey has persuaded Tommy to invest in a business proposition: to open a swank nightclub, ironically called The Dump, at the very place he lived with the homeless men in order to provide them with jobs and accommodation. When the nightclub is up and running, he decides to leave the Bullocks to move into the club and manage it. In 1957, conscious-stricken that he is in America illegally, Godfrey decides to leave the Bullocks and turn himself into the Immigration Department, where they promptly make plans to deport him.

However, before he leaves, in 1936, Godfrey hands over to Mr Bullock certificates for the shares in his own company Bullock was forced to sell. With the proceeds of pawning the pearl necklace Cornelia put under his mattress, Godfrey played the stock-market, bought those shares and has signed them over to Bullock. Having redeemed the pearls and with no further use for them he returns them to Cornelia. In 1957, Godfrey asks Francesca to persuade her extremely rich fiancé to lend Mr Bullock the money he needs to save his business. He gives no reason for keeping Cordelia’s diamond bracelet, except, perhaps to teach her a lesson.

In 1936, convinced that Godfrey loves her because he put her under the shower when she was pretending to be unconscious, Irene guesses that he would return to the rubbish dump where she found him. She follows Godfrey to the nightclub and, despite his strenuous objections, and from the look on his face, entirely against his will, Irene recruits the mayor of New York, a patron at the nightclub, to perform their marriage ceremony, even without a licence.

In 1957, having learnt that Godfrey could stay in America if he married an American woman, Irene drives like hell to catch up with the ship on which Godfrey is being deported. She gets there just as the gangplank has been raised. Shouting across the widening gap between them, Irene pleads with Godfrey to marry her so he can stay in America. Godfrey refuses because he doesn’t want people to say he only married her for that purpose, but Irene won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. With the help of a sympathetic policeman (after all, she is a rich white woman so the policeman would be sympathetic despite the fact that he has just fined her for several traffic violations) she gets to the ship on a tugboat and persuades the captain to marry them. This time Godfrey is delighted.

One can only hope that in both cases, they discover that the weddings are invalid, and Godfrey can graciously bow out of a marriage that is doomed to failure!

So, what could have happened during the intervening years between 1936 and 1957 to prompt the major changes the adaptors made to the screenplay?

In 1957, America had left the Great Depression well behind and entered a long period of growth and prosperity. Unemployment and homelessness were no longer the issues they were in 1936. However, poverty and homelessness would still have existed so, even in 1957, Godfrey could have been a rich man who chose to live on the streets. Perhaps the adaptors did not want to draw attention to the possibility of poverty in their own time.

There had been the Second World War, which furnished the 1957 Godfrey with his back story, though, since so many British and American men of Godfrey’s age would have fought on the Allies’ side, it seems superfluous to add the extra complication of his having fought on the Axis side and his feelings of guilt about bombing England. The adaptors needed him to be European so that he could be put in danger of being deported to make the ending work, but European men of many nations fought for the Allies. Perhaps the adaptors did not want to admit that Allied soldiers might have participated in atrocities they could feel guilty about.

But perhaps the biggest difference between the two versions of Godfrey is that in 1936 Godfrey has rejected a life of wealth and privilege and despises the rich, such as the Bullocks, as useless parasites. He sees working for the Bullocks as a spiritual practice, using the indignities they put him through as an exercise for his spiritual development. Even his kindnesses towards them are more for the benefit of his own soul than theirs. His only interest in money is as a means of helping those in need.

In 1957 the Bullocks, apart from Cordelia, are characterised as a little eccentric but basically well-meaning. Mrs Bullock works for charity and they provide Godfrey with a safe place to live. In their own hour of need, they are saved from financial ruin by the benevolence of a millionaire. Meanwhile, Molly is revealed as having been robbing her employers blind for years.

So perhaps the biggest influence on the changes made to the script was Joseph McCarthy, his Anti-Communism campaign and the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. In the face of McCarthyism, the 1936 Godfrey’s attitude to the wealthy would have smacked of pure Communism, something the 1957 adaptors would have been anxious to avoid. In 1957, therefore, the rich had to be sympathetic philanthropists and workers prone to exploiting their employers. Nor could it be hinted that the American economy pushed anyone into poverty, or that the Allies had been anything other than always on the side of ‘truth, justice and the American way.’

In pandering to McCarthyism, the 1957 adaptors stripped My Man Godfrey of everything that gave it meaning and turned a scathing indictment of the monied classes into just another romcom.

© Pauline Montagna 2021


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