Twentieth Century (1934) Review, with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard

Twentieth Century (1934)Danny Like Banner

TwentiethCentury3 TwentiethCentury11 TwentiethCentury28
Oscar Jaffe
John Barrymore
Lily Garland
Carole Lombard
Oliver Webb
Walter Connolly
TwentiethCentury14 TwentiethCentury37 TwentiethCentury27
Owen O’Malley
Roscoe Karns
George Smith
Ralph Forbes
Matthew J. Clark
Etienne Girardot
Released by Columbia | Directed By Howard Hawks

Proof That It’s Pre-Code

  • A couple lives together despite not being married. They share a bed shaped like a boat, where it’s implied that they ‘row’ often.
  • Temperamental producer Oscar Jaffe refers to someone as an ‘ass’.
  • Sappho, the famous lesbian Greek poet, gets a namedrop.
  • You definitely get to see quite a bit of Carole Lombard.

Twentieth Century: All Aboard the Crazy Train

“He won’t kill himself. It would please too many people!”

I write about movies a lot– you may have noticed this– and it’s important to remind myself not just about the actors on the screen but of the directors calling the shots and the thousands of other technicians, studio men, and moguls who made the movies from the early 1930s so memorable.

But, of course, not all of them are good people. Drugs, liquor, and general psychopathy are among the traditions of an industry that thrives on money and power. See also: politics, Wall Street, and the owner of my local Taco Bell (more likely than not).

John Barrymore was certainly no stranger to vice, which may be the integral ingredient to his late-career high point Twentieth Century. He plays the Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe, a rampant egomaniac who often performs his own one-man melodramas for as much of a crowd as he can muster– and, more often than not, those are just exasperated colleagues. This flair for the dramatic allows Barrymore to kick his character from Dinner at Eight up another notch or two into full blown hammy madness.

You got that right!
You got that right!

Jaffe’s egocentric attitude is tolerated because he’s a genuine genius of the theater. For his latest play, a trite Southern melodrama, he’s decided to appoint himself as kingmaker as well. His new leading lady is rechristened from Mildred Plotka to Lily Garland, from lingerie model to leading lady. She’s terribly wooden, though, so Jaffe breaks her down by exhausting her through a grueling rehearsal, finally achieving a climactic scream by sticking her with a pin.

The pin is the lynchpin (cough) of their relationship: he’s nasty and abusive to her, but she ends up treasuring it. She keeps the pin in a little keepsake container, too, to remind herself that all it took to make her a star is one little prick. (cough the pin is a penis cough)

But even that sense of adoration Jaffe can’t overcome what a big prick he can be; his controlling nature soon drives Lily away. His plays, without his muse, begin to falter badly. Lily makes it big in Hollywood, while Jaffe is run out of Chicago. However, his two cronies, the often fired Oliver and the just-as-often tanked Owen, catch a glimpse of Lily boarding the same train a distraught Jaffe is aboard, and soon the game is on: can he wrangle her forgiveness– and a contract to star in his next play– before the train reaches New York?

I don't think this is going well.
I don’t think this is going well.

Director Howard Hawks, on his first talkie comedy, keeps things light and moving, even if he can’t escape the stage-bound feeling of the affair. The train setting provides the chance for plenty of colorful characters to rebound in confined spaces, like the loon who keeps slapping apocalyptic stickers on everything. There’s also George, Lily’s new boyfriend. The couple seems to be doing great until George surprises her with the news that he’s tagging along to New York with her, ruining her perfectly planned goodbye and sending her into an verbose tirade.

Twentieth Century is famous for making Carole Lombard a huge star and rightfully so. Lily goes from the shy ingenue to the rampaging madwoman at the drop of a hat, and it’s apparent that her relationship with Jaffe transferred many of his worse tendencies to her. Lombard plays this wonderfully, as few actresses made ‘hysterics’ so delightfully goofy.

The interplay between Barrymore and Lombard is top notch as well, as the two often try and beat each other in sheer insane over-the-top zaniness. This is a fairly loud movie, with the two characters often shouting lines over one anther, which neither one hears, nor needs to. Special attention must also be paid to Arthur Connelly and Roscoe Karns as Jaffe’s two supporting buddies, whose mix of desperation, alcoholism, and general disdain for their employer’s unwavering devotion to himself allow them to be the perfect foils for the escalating action.

Star crossed nutjobs.
Star crossed nutjobs.

Twentieth Century probably isn’t a movie for anyone who can’t understand the finer pleasures of chaos– I didn’t much care for it the first three or four times I saw it– but as soon as you’ve met a person or two like Jaffe– a total creep and unrepentant asshole but is also just so fun to be around– I think the movie becomes a lot more relatable. Thanks to Barrymore and Lombard completely letting loose, it’s a very memorable trip.

Trivia & Links

  • John Barrymore also starred in Svengali, which jokingly gets referenced several times here. There’s also a reference to Rain tossed in.
Noticably the play's poster reveals the name of the play writes of the men who wrote the play Twentieth Century was based on -- Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.
Noticeably the play’s poster here shows the names of the men who wrote the play Twentieth Century was based on — Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.
  • Cliff at Immortal Ephemera thinks this one is a tad overrated, feeling that, “Carole Lombard is trying too hard to be funny.”
  • Movie Morlocks cribs heavily from Howard Hawks’ biography to give you some behind the scene information.
  • Dear Mr. Gable has a lengthy biography of Lombard, including the story of her legendary romance with Clark Gable himself. And for more Carole, you can never go wrong with catching up at the delightful Carole & Co.
Oh, hey! I recognize Lew Ayres, Kay Francis, and Barbara Stanwyck, all on top of the many Lombards on display. Do you see anyone I'm missing?
Oh, hey! I recognize Lew Ayres, Kay Francis, Jean Harlow, Mae West, and Barbara Stanwyck, all on top of the many Lombards on display. Do you see anyone I’m missing?

Barrymore said that Twentieth Century was his favorite of all his films, and called the part of Oscar Jaffe “a role that comes once in a lifetime.” (And watching his performance, you can see why it was his favorite role – he looks like he’s having a ball!)


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Danny lives outside Tokyo, Japan, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter, and two yappy dogs. He blogs bi-weekly at, a website dedicated to Hollywood films from 1930 to 1934, and can be found on Twitter @PreCodeDotCom.

15 thoughts on “Twentieth Century (1934) Review, with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard

  1. I watched this film a couple of weeks ago and mentioned on Twitter that I was enjoying John Barrymore’s performance. A woman responded to me with the best tweet EVER: “I have a crush on John Barrymore’s hair.” Fabulous!

  2. I knew this movie would eventually show up here, and I’ve been kind of dreading it. I’ve seen it two or three times, and I’m afraid Lombard’s acting really bothers me. It just doesn’t seem right somehow. I wish we’d had more of a “Hawks Woman” in this part, tougher, more of an equal to Barrymore, whereas Carole Lombard strikes me as strident, hysterical, and offputting. The rest of the movie is terrific, and Barrymore is at the height of his charming hamminess. But o for a Roz Russell or a Stanwyck or a Jean Arthur in the other role. I really *want* to like this movie, but…

    1. I understand what you’re talking about– Cliff has the same reservations in his article that I linked above. But I disagree. All the actresses you listed would have been too earthy or relatable for the role. The key to why I like her in the movie so much is that Lombard isn’t relatable, but that she’s just as loony as Barrymore. The .gif I have above of her reaction to her boyfriend refusing to get off the train is just priceless. Carole embodies that talentless hack who needs drama in her life just as exaggerated and nutty as Barrymore gets. I love it, but I know that style of scenery chewing from a character who ostensibly is supposed to be the most sympathetic can be a little incongruous.

  3. I love Barrymore’s mischievous spoof on ‘Camille’ in this – it came as a surprise when I remembered that Garbo’s ‘Camille’, which I love, actually came a couple of years later, so he must have been making fun of an earlier version, or versions… there seem to be quite a few earlier films, plus of course all the stage adaptations. Anyway, he’s just so good in this, even though his career was almost at the end of the road – I love that gif you’ve included here, Danny, and your review has made me want to watch it again soon. I also think Lombard is great in this too, and there is a wonderful battle of hamminess between them.

    1. It’s decadently over-the-top. I hadn’t seen the Camille parallel before, but I can sort of see it now. I also really enjoyed the allusions to Svengali, which Barrymore was also in, making the circle complete.

      1. He says something like ‘I shall do it like the ending of Camille’, if I remember rightly. And yeah, I enjoyed the allusions to Svengali too – he’s so great in that too.

        1. Oh yeah! Good catch. I will admit something– just between you and me– that I probably wouldn’t like the entirety of pre-Code nearly as much if Garbo’s Camille were a part of it. Really can’t stand that movie.

  4. Well, Danny, I’ll give it another shot, and keep your perspective in mind as I re-watch. I mean, I watched Seinfeld for years and enjoyed the antics of those miserably selfish people. I guess you’re suggesting that there’s a similar thing going on here–we’re not actually supposed to be rooting for this couple. Instead, we should be laughing *at* them?

    1. Yes. I don’t know if you ever did theater in school, Jack, but they’re the archetypical volatile couple who thrives on drama to survive. They’re completely so caught up in themselves that they must act through all their emotions and lives or else they wouldn’t know what to do. I think one of the movie’s flaws is that it makes it a little too easy for you to sympathize with Lombard early on, because that makes you root for her– even when she turns out to be a total loon as well.

      But, then again, it took me a number of tries to like it too. I hope you enjoy it more on your next go around!

  5. Great article. However, at that point in time, “ass” meant “donkey”, not “buttocks”. So it’s not really a Naughty Pre-Code Word.

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