|Matthew J. Clark
|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.
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?
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.
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.
- 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.
- Satin and Shadows has some great quotes, as well as ample praise for Barrymore:
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!)
Hover over for controls.
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film appeared in the Wikipedia List of Pre-Code Films.
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