The Butler Did It: Servants in Film

Cast to serve the story, servants have recently started serving their own class interests in films from Poppins to Pettigrew. Peter Bowen speaks with the help.

In Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, the giddy Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams) and the frumpy Miss Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) make an odd couple who in the end discover that they need each other much more than either one could have expected. Their relationship, however, began not from affection, but as a simple business arrangement. Miss Pettigrew, a failed governess, desperately needed a position, and Miss LaFosse desperately needed someone to manage her children, most of whom turn out to be grown men. As in many other films and stories that revolve around servants and employers, the very things that separate Miss Pettigrew and Miss Lafosse (class structure and financial disparity) are also what bring them together. Only as Delysia's servant was Miss Pettigrew permitted entry to her private world, and was thus able to become her confidante and friend.

Miss Pettigrew's predicament of being both friend and employee, intimate and estranged, has been the situation servants have faced in plays and novels throughout history. In fiction, as in life, servants for the most part hovered quietly in the background, willing to step up at any moment if their presence might serve the narrative. In film, this relationship stayed pretty much the same. But in the 20th century, when political and economic changes redefined cultural meanings of wealth and luxury, in addition to race and class, servants started to serve the story quite differently.

In silent and early sound film, servants served primarily as props or comic relief. Occasionally, as in D. W. Griffith's 1910 An Arcadian Maid, they helped enact a morality tale. Here America's sweetheart Mary Pickford plays a maid, who, seduced by a traveling salesman, steals from her employees. Before dawn, however, she comes to her senses, returns the money, and the farm's social equilibrium is reestablished with her employees having never suspected that anything had gone wrong.

However, the opposite condition — the reversal of social harmony — was also a mainstay of early films, as butlers posed as lords, ladies were mistaken as maids, and the floor separating the upstairs from downstairs collapsed, usually with comic effect. A typical story was Mal St. Clair's 1926 The Grand Duchess and the Waiter, where a Parisian millionaire (played by Adolphe Menjou) pretends to be a waiter into order to get close to his beloved, a noble woman. Of course, in the end, the masks come off, and everything settles back to normal.

However other uses of this switched identity suggested more complicated outcomes. Chester M. Franklin's 1921 All Souls' Eve scares up a spooky tale of transmigration as a lady and her Irish maid trade souls when the lady suddenly dies. In the film versions of J.M Barrie's popular play The Admirable Crichton — adapted first in 1918 by G. B. Samuelson and then by Cecil B. Demille's in his 1919 version entitled Male and Female; the play was again adapted in 1934 as We're Not Dressing, and then in 1957 under its original name — reversal of identity provides less a punch line than a philosophical problem. When an aristocratic family is marooned on a desert isle, their butler Crichton, by dint of his practical skills and managerial savvy, becomes the default leader. Within a year, all social structure is reversed, and the family now serves the butler. When everyone is rescued, Crichton attempts to resume his domestic position, but the harmony of the class system has been irrevocably ruptured that he must leave the household he held together for so many years.

In the '30s, servants usually served up laughs and romance as mistaken identities led to all manner of high jinks. In Gregory La Cava's classic 1936 screwball comedy My Man Godfrey, a ditzy heiress (Carole Lombard) adopts an eccentric hobo name Godfrey (William Powell) as the family butler, unaware that Godfrey is actually part of a wealthy Boston family. This type of reversal could take on pretty much any form. In James Whale's 1934 By Candlelight — his first comedy after a string of famous horror movies — a butler who falls for a woman he believes to be a countess pretends to be the master of the house. The punch line comes when his beloved countess turns out only to be a maid herself.


The '30s also highlighted the issue of race and servants. While most servant roles for African-Americans were written to play up racial stereotypes (wide eyes, thick-witted slang, exaggerated movements), these roles occasionally allowed African Americans to still radiate a normally unrepresented humanity. As film scholar Donald Bogle suggests, "it would be appropriate to say that certain black actors by individualizing their servants through their own unique and winning personalities had proven that these black faces were not just escapist creations on the screen but realistic humans as well." While Hattie McDaniel, for example, played her Mammy part in Gone with the Wind perfectly as written, her performance also elicited enough emotional recognition to garner her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, the first ever given to an African American. And McDaniel knew exactly what she was doing. Once criticized for playing servile maid roles, McDaniel pointedly asked, "Why should I complain about making seven thousand dollars a week playing a maid? If I didn't, I'd be making seven dollars a week actually being one."

After the World War II, when maintaining servants in most households seemed a bit decadent, servants began to turn sinister. The prototype for this scary servant popped up in the formidable presence of Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) in Hitchcock's 1940 mystery Rebecca. The icy housekeeper remained loyal to — if not a little in love with — her mistress even after death. As servants began to be recognized as real human beings, they also began to experience real psychological trauma and shortcomings. In his 1948 The Fallen Idol, Carol Reed adapted a Graham Greene story in which a young boy refuses to acknowledge that his hero, the family butler (played by Ralph Richardson), might actually be a murder suspect, because he refuses to see him as anything less than perfect.

By the 1960s, servants were engaged in out-and-out class warfare. In Seth Holt's British 1965 thriller The Nanny, Bette Davis extends her Grand Guignol stint by playing a terrifying caretaker who may very well be taking lives as well. This conceit of the snake in the nest was replayed in the '90s with different Lifetime variations of Curtis Hanson's The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Joseph Losey added the extra kink of sexual tension in his 1963 adaptation of Harold Pinter's The Servant. Dirk Bogarde (fresh from having played a gay man in Victim the year before) plays a servant who begins to seduce, if not destroy, his weak-willed employer (played by James Fox).

The very next year, however, brought a shining new servant character — Mary Poppins. Based on P. L. Travers' beloved children books, Robert Stevenson's Disney version cast Julie Andrews (in her screen debut) as a magical governess who is able to transform a dysfunctional family into a loving one. Hired as a governess, the plucky, at times cranky, Mary Poppins was anything but servile. While Poppins may be the most famous version of this independent contractor role, she was not alone. Walter Lang's Sitting Pretty introduced Clifton Webb as Mr. Belvedere, the curmudgeonly self-style genius who manages to whip a young family into shape, that is, when he isn't annoying them. In Steve Gordon's nostalgic comedy Arthur, John Gielgud won his sole Oscar playing the wise butler to a lovable and lost alcoholic (Dudley Moore).

By the '90s, servants not only had become anachronistic, but it was necessary to give equal weight to both the upstairs and downstairs. While Robert Altman's murder mystery Gosford Park, for example, takes place on an English estate in the 1930s, everyone — both butler and master — are given equal weight as both characters and suspects. (Jean Renoir's masterpiece The Rules of the Game had captured the lives of both worlds in 1939). In James Ivory's 1992 The Remains of the Day, the traditional placement of upstairs/downstairs is completely reversed as the lives of the servants — specifically the butler (played by Anthony Hopkins) and the housekeeper (played by Emma Thompson) — take center stage.

Servants for the most part have all but disappeared from contemporary cinema, except perhaps in fun-filled period pieces like Miss Pettigrew or more serious literary adaptations. The invisibility of the cinematic servant class, however, is perhaps apt given the legal status of many of today's domestic workers, be they Latino housekeepers in privileged Hollywood homes or a Mexican groundskeeper whose only sound emanates from a leaf blower at the far corner of the screen. Newer films, like Patricia Riggen's upcoming La Misma Luna or Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel, are pushing this new servant class to center screen. But perhaps the most inventive take on the complicated role of servants in film is Sergio Arau's A Day Without a Mexican. Marginalized in reality and film, the Mexican population simply disappears from this comic nightmare, and white Los Angeles suddenly learns what it really means to render a class of people invisible.