Broadway director Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) is a bigger ham than most actors, but through sheer drive and talent he is able to build a successful career. When one of his discoveries, Lily Garland (Carole Lombard), rises to stardom and heeds the call of Hollywood, Oscar begins a career slide. He hits the skids and seems on his way out, until he chances to meet Lily again, on a train ride aboard the Twentieth Century Limited. Oscar pulls out all the stops to re-sign his former star, but it\'s a battle... because Lily, who is as temperamental as Oscar is, wants to have nothing to do with her former mentor.
John Barrymore ... Oscar \'O.J.\' Jaffe
Carole Lombard ... Lily Garland, aka Mildred Plotka
Walter Connolly ... Oliver Webb
Roscoe Karns ... Owen O\'Malley
Ralph Forbes ... George Smith
Charles Lane ... Max Jacobs (as Charles Levison)
Etienne Girardot ... Mathew J. Clark
Dale Fuller ... Sadie, Lily\'s maid
Edgar Kennedy ... Oscar McGonigle
Billie Seward ... Anita, irate woman on train
Down but not quite out, a megalomaniacal theatrical producer schemes to get his former star & lover back under contract during a wild ride on the TWENTIETH CENTURY Limited racing from Chicago to New York City.
Directed by Howard Hawks from an inspired script by Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur, this is one of the seminal screwball comedies which would set the high-water mark for years to come - zany characters, living at a frenetic pace, throwing outrageous lines at each other. While the situations are completely unrealistic it makes no matter. Films like this were calculated to lift Depression audiences out of their troubles for an hour or so; today, we long for them to work that old magic again.
In a large & spirited cast there is one eminence, one name above the title, one peak ascending over the smaller hills. John Barrymore, a lifetime of theatrical history and private dissolution etched on his remarkable face, is a grade A ham as the unspeakable Oscar Jaffe, willing to break any convention, law or dogma to get what he wants. Cajoling, pleading, threatening, cooing like a dove, screeching like a banshee, Barrymore is utterly mad, unspeakably obnoxious & thoroughly delightful. He doesn\'t just dominate the film, he overwhelms it like a thick wave of brimstone & honey. Watching him infuriate his players by chalking their movements on the floor, disguise himself as an elderly Southern gentleman in order to sneak aboard the train, or arranging his own fake death scene to serve his egotistical ends, is to watch a master of the acting art play a comedic role worthy of him.
Carole Lombard is lovely, but completely overshadowed by Barrymore. Her character, while that of a great star, is pitched at a more normal tilt and exists to react to his enormities. While she\'s wonderful to watch, it\'s impossible to forget to whom the film really belongs.
The rest of the cast is first rate. Barrymore\'s two faithful factotums are played by dyspeptic Walter Connolly and sardonic, boozy Roscoe Karns, both of whom have learned to deal with The Master\'s dictums in different ways. Hatchet-faced Charles Lane plays a director who becomes Barrymore\'s theatrical blood rival. Edgar Kennedy burnishes his few scenes as a private eye who\'s no match for an enraged Lombard. Handsome Englishman Ralph Forbes plays against type as a spoiled society boy who thinks he\'s in love with Lombard. And for sheer looniness there\'s chittering little Etienne Girardot, playing a benignly mad gentleman wandering about the train plastering large REPENT stickers on every available surface.
Movie mavens will recognize Herman Bing & Lee Kohlmar as the uncredited & hilarious Passion Players from Oberammergau.
If \"The Lady With Red Hair\" (about Mrs. Leslie Carter) gave us a good portrait of theatrical producer/director David Belasco (in the capable hands of Claude Rains), this film shows the ham side. Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) is based on Belasco, with his less attractive sides. Here is not the man who simply helped create proper modern stage production and rehearsal technique, but the egotistical side of him (the side Rains showed when he released all contacts to Leslie Carter -Miriam Hopkins in that film - when she dared to marry without his consent). Here Jaffe has created the actress sensation \"Lily Garland\" from an ambitious shop girl named Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard). Jaffe has played a caring, fatherly Svengali to her, prodding her by caring, sweet, regretful terms to do what he wants (except they are rehearsing). But although - eventually - Lily is willing to become his lover, he is so jealous that he drives her to flee from him. He decides he can do it again, but falls on his face. She goes on to screen immortality in Hollywood. So he is forced to pull out all stops to get her back to a signed contract, when he learns she and he are traveling back to New York on the Twentieth Century train.
Howard Hawks would tackle farce several times in his career: \"His Gal Friday\", \"I Was A Male War Bride\", \"Man\'s Favorite Sport\" were all in the future. But this may have been the best of them. The other films have great choice moments, but this one is almost flawless from the start. Take the beginning when Jaffe brings the cast of his first play starring Lili. It is a piece of sentimental pap that Jaffe always produces (later on, before being dismissed by him, Charles Lane tells off Jaffe the truth that he produces hackwork and \"gets away with it\" because of Lili\'s talent). In fact, it is a spoof of a popular piece of melodrama from the late 1920s, \"Coquette\", which was turned into a film in 1929 (and netted Mary Pickford an Oscar, which she should have gotten for other films, such as \"Sparrows\"). The cast, including an African-American in a typical stereotype servant role of the period, have to go through several hours of rehearsing the first scene due to Mildred/Lily\'s failure to match Jaffe\'s exacting direction. What the overly controlling Jaffe does with stage blocking and a piece of chalk is a nightmare for anyone who has ever tried to produce or act in a play. He does, however, know about acting - he reminds Mildred/Lily that when she calls for \"Daddy\" in an old southern plantation house she is not to use a voice similar to calling \"Taxi\" in the street.
I won\'t go into the rest of the film, but wait for \"the iron door\" whose hinges get dingier and more rusted with each closing, or Barrymore\'s commentary on \"the Passion Play\". Lombard has a more subtle, reacting part, but she is Barrymore\'s equal partner, having the moment of reality at the center of the film: on the train, when after screaming at each other she breaks down and cries, and makes Jaffe realize that they have built themselves into an unhealthy universe where they can\'t be real people anymore. It\'s a brief, and touching moment - fortunately not destroying the sheer lovely nuttiness of the rest of the film.
Howard Hawks is probably my favorite Hollywood director. He made genuine classics in virtually every film genre, except perhaps Horror.
I had never seen Twentieth Century until its release on DVD recently. It is a good movie, funny, and entertaining. But, IMHO, it falls short of being one of his Greats.
The problem, for me, is that Twentieth Century never changes its tone throughout the whole movie. It starts with people shouting at one another, and acting hysterical, and it carries that through until the end.
In structure, Twentieth Century is similar to His Girl Friday, the screwball comedy Hawks directed six years later, (and a superior film). That is similar is not surprising for two reasons. First, because the Hollywood/Broadway writer Charles MacArthur was involved in both projects. And Second, because Hawks, in his career, was noted for often going back to basic story lines and remaking pictures.
Both movies revolve around a woman involved with and fighting with her former boss/lover. In both stories, the plot revolves around the ex-boss trying to get the woman back, both on the job and in his life. In the case of Twentieth Century, the ex-boss and woman, are played by John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. In His Girl Friday, the parts are played by Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.
Twentieth Century is definitely John Barrymore\'s picture, and he is wonderful in it. Those of us from later generations, have mostly only heard of John Barrymore. It is a real treat to watch him. Barrymore\'s character is overwrought and overacts shamelessly, but it is totally in keeping with his character. At one point, in one of Barrymore\'s endless tirades, almost in mid-sentence, he begins imitating a camel chewing. It is a startling moment, that goes by almost as fast as it appeared, but it is a brilliant piece of comedic acting. There are very few actors, either then or now, who have the creativity or the versatility to pull off a scene like that, and make it seem totally in character.
(Possible Spoiler) This was, I believe, Carole Lombard\'s first major role, and she does very well keeping up with Barrymore, shout for shout, and eccentricity for eccentricity. She is not quite his equal, particularly at the end of the film, (which I found a little bit disappointing) but she comes close.
Like all good and great screwball comedies, Twentieth Century has great dialogue to go along with the zaniness. And both Barrymore and Lombard do a great job delivering that dialogue.
So, it is well worth watching Twentieth Century. It just seems that, in his later films, comedies and otherwise, Howard Hawks was better able to build tension to a crescendo. Here, too much of the movie is all crescendo, and by the end, it may wear you out.
* \"Napoleon Of Broadway\", the play on which \'Ben Hecht\' and Charles MacArthur based their screenplay, was based on playwright Charles Bruce Millholland\'s experiences working for the legendary eccentric theater producer David Belasco. Although Milholland\'s play was unproduced, Hecht and MacArthur\'s play opened in New York on 29 December 1932 and had 152 performances. In the cast were Etienne Girardot (who re-created his role for the movie), Granville Bates, William Frawley, Joseph Crehan and Dennie Moore. There was a revival in 1950, and another is planned in 2004 with Alec Baldwin.
* When asked by John Barrymore why he should play the role of Oscar, Howard Hawks replied, \"It\'s the story of the biggest ham on earth and you\'re the biggest ham I know.\" Barrymore accepted at once.
* John Barrymore once said that the role of Oscar was \"a role that comes once in a lifetime\" and even deemed this his favorite of all the movies he appeared in.
* After filming had ended, John Barrymore gave Carole Lombard an autographed photo inscribed, \"To the finest actress I have worked with, bar none.\"
* Howard Hawks was concerned when Carole Lombard could not perform the kicking scene very well. Hawks took her out for a walk and recalls, \"I asked her how much money she was getting for this picture. She told me and I said, \'What would you say if I told you you\'d earned your whole salary this morning and didn\'t have to act anymore?\' And she was stunned. So I said, \'Now forget about the scene. What would you do if someone said such and such to you?\' And she said, \'I\'d kick him in the balls.\' And I said, \'Well, he (John Barrymore) said something like that--why don\'t you kick him?\' She said, \'Are you kidding?\' And I said, \'No.\'\" Hawks ended the conversation with, \"Now we\'re going back in and make this scene and you kick, and you do any damn thing that comes into your mind that\'s natural, and quit acting. If you don\'t quit, I\'m going to fire you this afternoon.\" Hawks\' white lies did the trick, and the scene was filmed. In addition, Hawks claimed that after that, Lombard never began another movie without sending him a telegram that read, \"I\'m gonna start kicking him.\"