Named after the New York to Chicago train and designed to be just as sleek, fast and modern, Twentieth Century is a brilliant Howard Hawks screwball comedy that’s been slightly overshadowed by other brilliant Howard Hawks screwball comedies, like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday.
In art-imitates-life style, it tells the A Star Is Born story of one person in the ascendant and another on the decline, with Carole Lombard in the role that made her name, and John Barrymore pausing momentarily as he transited from movie godhood to a very mortal early death.
Both are brilliant, but Barrymore is perhaps even better than Lombard, as Oscar Jaffe, a stage impresario with an eye for a pretty girl who takes the lumpen Mildred Plotka (Lombard), renames her Lily Garland, without asking her, and then moulds her into a stage sensation, before his creation strikes out for independence and Hollywood, leaving him to stew in his own increasingly sour juices.
The film breaks down into three very distinct chunks – Act 1, Oscar finds Mildred/Lily and teaches her to act; Act 2, Lily tires of Oscar’s endless demands now she’s a star; Act 3, set on board the Twentieth Century, the two of them accidentally meet again, and he, broke, implores her to come to his aid.
There is one joke, told and retold and funny every time it’s repeated, and it’s that showbiz folk have weirdly lost the ability to distinguish between being on and off – they become monstrous. But it’s a joke told with real affection for showbiz itself, portrayed as a branch of life full of interesting people doing interesting things.
Barrymore was a silent star before the talkies came in and part of the reason for his descent from Olympian heights was his inability to shake off the vestiges of the more theatrical, flamboyant style of silent-movie acting. He was a touch hammy. The story goes that when Hawks was trying to persuade Barrymore to take the role, his clinching argument was, “It’s the story of the biggest ham on earth and you’re the biggest ham I know.”
Barrymore accepted instantly, and enthusiastically, from what we can see on the screen. He launches into the role with a reckless, self-skewering abandon bordering on the lunatic. It’s a brilliant, brilliant performance, full of over-acting and theatrical eye-rolling, phoney swoons and staggers and endlessly funny. It’s all Lombard can do to keep up with him in the scenes they share. But she does – even though the sound recording equipment of the era and Lombard’s slightly reedy voice aren’t a perfect fit, her ability to bang out the lines in the rhythmic way that Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote them, and her loose, light style of acting are in her favour. Hawks lets Barrymore and Lombard improvise some of their shared scenes. A good call.
It’s a brilliantly paced affair all the way through, but its brilliance as a farce becomes most apparent in the last act, when, on board the train, Hecht and Macarthur inject more and more characters into the situation – like the insane embezzler and religious nut Matthew J Clark (a brilliant Etienne Girardot), Jaffe’s Laurel-and-Hardy-esque right hand men (more great comic playing, by Walter Connolly and Roscoe Karns), Lily’s doltish beau (Ralph Forbes), a pair of actors from the Oberammagau Passion Play (why not?), plus various employees of the train company – and Hawks whisks them all together in an increasingly feverish climax recalling the Marx brothers at full tilt.
All this and Lombard’s breasts swinging freely inside her shirt – that wanton-and-what-of-it sexuality was a vital part of her appeal. At one point, à propos of nothing at all, she appears wearing barely anything at all. Twentieth Century was released just as Hollywood’s morality code was kicking in and all the hallmarks of the pre-Code film are here. Screwball slowed down a bit once the puritans got involved. It’s hard to laugh with a po face.
Twentieth Century – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2022