Twentieth Century (1934) is one of the more beloved screwball comedies of all-time garnering rave reviews everywhere I've looked. This alone has led me to giving it a long second look because I must admit, my original opinion of Twentieth Century was that it was overrated. After spending some time with it this week, overrated continues to be my conclusion, though not as much as I had originally thought. Yes, it did grow on me some this time around. Still, I find myself surprised to see it get 4 stars every place I look and the IMDb rating of 8.1/10 seems a tad high to me.
I'm going to use this post to review Twentieth Century and try to get to the bottom of my own ambivalence towards it.
Twentieth Century comes to us courtesy of some pretty amazing talent--the play, originally titled Napoleon of Broadway and written by Charles Bruce Millholland, was turned into Twentieth Century by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and first hit Broadway December 29, 1932 at the Broadhurst Theater, where it would run for 152 performances through May 20 of the following year. Hecht and MacArthur would also do the script for the Howard Hakes film version which was produced between February 22 and March 24, 1934, making it's debut at Radio City Music Hall on May 3 of that year and going into general release about a week later, on May 11.
An excerpt from Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood by Todd McCarthy, which I found on TCM's Movie Morlocks site, brings us the only negative text I've yet to see about Twentieth Century:
The critics were generally appreciative of the film’s sophistication, expert playing, and direction. But Variety’s prediction that the film was “probably too smart for general consumption” was born out by bad business so lackluster that the film lasted only one week at Radio City.
The film, of course, stars John Barrymore as Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe and Carole Lombard as his star, Lily Garland...formerly Mildred Plotka. Also figuring big are Jaffe's manager, Oliver, and his agent, Owen, played by Walter Connolly and Roscoe Karns. Then we have an assortment of smaller, interesting characters, such as Etienne Girardot, re-enacting his role from the stage, as the seemingly wealthy, but actually off-his-rocker, Matthew J. Clark; Charles Lane as Jaffe's former producer and latter enemy Max Mandelbaum, er Jacobs; the familiar Herman Bing and less so Lee Kohlmar hiding behind big beards as members of the Passion Play; Ralph Forbes as Lily's new beau, the very vanilla George Smith; and others.
John Barrymore is at full-strength here and carries the movie. Barrymore is actually the reason I decided to give this another try, as I wrote about his birthday earlier this week and when I mentioned Twentieth Century I was really having a problem recalling details. While I also think Walter Connolly and especially Roscoe Karns are entertaining here, I believe that there wouldn't be a lot here without Barrymore hamming it up with his wild gesticulations and often frenzied speech throughout.
The basic story of Twentieth Century, including spoilers, is as follows: Jaffe creates a star in Lily Garland, and the two become a couple. Jaffe keeps close tabs on Lily, but pushes too far when he sets a private eye loose to spy on her. Lily leaves not only Jaffe, but Broadway, which she had conquered, for Hollywood. Jaffe attempts to create a new Lily Garland, but fails miserably and finds himself in such debt that he has to wear a disguise to escape Chicago bill collectors to the train of the title. Lily Garland, freshly off conquering Hollywood, boards the same train soonafter.
Oscar Jaffe plots to recapture Lily throughout the rest of the movie, eventually gaining a backer and a large check from Matthew J. Clark, who we've seen throughout the train ride spreading doomsday stickers around the train and have heard through a telegram has a habit of writing bad checks. Jaffe appeals to Clark after meeting with our bearded friends who give Jaffe the idea of putting the Passion Play on Broadway. Jaffe does his best to sell Lily on an extravagant production of the Passion Play, but right at the peak of his pitch she bursts out laughing at him and the two are as far apart as ever before.
Jaffe, upon finding out he has a bum check, erupts into histrionics, pulls a gun, threatens suicide and is eventually shot at by his supposed benefactor Clark. This gives Jaffe the grand idea of winning back Lily by pretending he's near death, with pals Oliver and Owen hovering over him and helping to sell it to Lily. Of course Jaffe gets Lily to sign right as Max Jacobs bursts into the scene pleading with her not to do anything. Our story ends back where it started, when Jaffe directing Lily as though she were an amateur, even though she's a seasoned actress by this point.
Ted Sennett in Lunatics and Lovers, his 1973 survey of screwball comedies, writes of Twentieth Century and its stars:
Never slackening in its pace, 20th Century has the same sort of inspired insanity that Howard Hawks would sustain four years later in Bringing Up Baby. Raging from honeyed tones to ear-piercing bellows, John Barrymore pulls out all stops characteristically, making Oscar Jaffe a kind of outrageous but likable monster. Lombard here shows the ability to combine both high and low comedy in a single performance, an ability she was to develop more fully in the late thirties (266).
There you have it, perhaps an explanation of my own hesitation in heaping praise upon Twentieth Century. I like Carole Lombard, I really do. Loved her in My Man Godfrey (1936) where she is suitably over the top throughout, think she's outstanding as "dying" Hazel Flagg opposite Fredric March in Nothing Sacred (1937), and find Sennett's quote about her above applying perfectly to her performance in the underrated The Princess Comes Across (1936), but in the end I think she might still be a little too green for me as Lily Garland in Twentieth Century.
Her voice comes across as inauthentic, and while I realize this is a comedy and her character is written to reek of inauthenticity, what I mean is I'm left feeling like I'm watching Carole Lombard trying too hard to be funny. What seemed natural as the wealthy daughter with zero responsibility a little later in Godfrey, seems fake and completely unrealistic as Lily Garland. Yes, Barrymore's Jaffe is just as unrealistic a character, but the master puts such flourishes onto Jaffe that any lack of reality is outweighed by his own very natural zaniness. Lombard is zany, yes, but in a drop your pants sort of way.
In John Kobler's biography of Barrymore, Damned in Paradise, he mentions that Lombard originally came off to Hawks as trying too hard to act the role. He got her to drop any such pretensions and just play the part naturally. Kobler, through Hawks, recreates a conversation between Hawks and Lombard:
Hawks: "What would you do if a man said such a thing to you?," mentioning an insult called for by the script.
Lombard: "I'd kick the son of a bitch right in the balls."
Hawks: "Well, Barrymore says it to you. Why didn't you kick him?"
They go in, do the scene, and after Barrymore says to Lombard, "That was marvelous, what have you been doing, kidding me?" Lombard ran off the set crying leaving Barrymore to ask Hawks what had just happened:
Hawks: "You've just seen a girl who is probably going to be a big star, and if we can just keep her from acting, we'll have a hell of a picture."
Italics mine. This story leads me to believe Lombard could have killed this picture with another director, but Hawks reeled her in enough to get the job done. I think maybe though, some of that acting shone through and disrupted the movie for me a little.
Twentieth Century is littered with great lines throughout, not unexpected from the great writing team, with Jaffe's constant closing of the iron door and references to Oliver as a grey rat, to the best line of the entire movie, uttered by Lombard's Lily to Barrymore's Jaffe, "We're not people, we're lithographs. We don't know anything about love unless it's written and rehearsed. We're only real in between curtains."
And despite my hammering of Lombard above I also thought she delivered the funniest line of Twentieth Century whe she declares to Jaffe, "I'm no Trilby," harkening back to the woman under the hypnotic control of the maestro Svengali, who just happened to be played by John Barrymore in 1931--I'd be curious to know if that line was in the original stage production without Barrymore, or if it was put in for a laugh here, I'm hoping the latter.
While the writing is excellent, I think the story itself has some weaknesses. Perhaps just dated in spots, but at the same time, let me say I love the above-referenced Hawks picture Bringing Up Baby (1938), as well as the big screwball comedy from the same year as Twentieth Century, Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934), neither of which I'd say suffer in the same regard. It seemed a little forced getting Jaffe and Lily on the same train; Jaffe's big play at dying at the end wasn't enough for me to believe Lily would sign the contract, no matter how funny the scene might have been; the bearded Passion Play characters, who I liked, seemed unnecessary, as did Lily's beau, George Smith, who possibly could have been given a little more meat to work with in the script.
In summation, let me remind you, I did enjoy Twentieth Century and I didn't put this post together to pick on either it or Carole Lombard. Instead I intended to get to the root of why I did not like it more, and I think I accomplished that. Again, it gained esteem on this viewing, so perhaps next time I will be crowing about how perfect it was, though I can't see that happening. I could see it as 3 star movie, and I wouldn't quibble with an IMDb rating as high as 6.8 or so, but 4 stars and an 8.1 set me loose to try and discover what I thought was wrong with Twentieth Century.
And all that said, there's still a lot right about it. Excellent film, great performance from this week's birthday boy, John Barrymore.