Twentieth Century, 1934
Dir: Howard Hawks
November 6, 2009
Oh, it's so screwy! This is considered one of the founding films that kick started the "screwball" comedy sub-genre that lasted from the mid 30s until WWII. Hawks' no nonsense direction let's you take in all the witty dialogue and hammy acting, but finding something more meaningful in the film is pretty pointless. I mean, it's funny sometimes, which is of course good. It's OK for what it is, but it didn't blow me away, and not because it was dated or anything like that, but I really didn't find myself that engaged at all.
The basic story of Twentieth Century is that Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) creates a star in Lily Garland (Carole Lombard), 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. Jaffe plots to recapture Lily throughout the rest of the movie, eventually gaining a backer and a large check from Matthew J. Clark (Etienne Giradot), who we've seen throughout the train ride spreading doomsday stickers around and have heard through a telegram has a habit of writing bad checks. Jaffe appeals to Clark after meeting with some wierd 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.
John Barrymore is phenomenal here and carries the movie, and in the first film I have ever seen him in has already produced a better performance than his granddaughter Drew has ever done. Barrymore is actually the reason I wasn't absolutely bored throughout. While I also think Walter Connolly as Webb and especially Roscoe Karns as Owen with his zingers are entertaining here as sidekicks and occasional drunks, I believe that there wouldn't be a lot here without Barrymore hamming it up with his wild gesticulations and often frenzied speech throughout. Everyone else is pretty forgettable, with Giradot's character not resonating at all and just seeming an uninteresting sidetrack. My biggest problem is Lombard. 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. Yes, Barrymore's Jaffe is just as unrealistic a character, but he 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 look at me I'm acting sort of way that some older screen performances fall victim to. And yes, I also know that the film is about actors and the "Thee-ayter," but it just bugged me. Oh, and she whines a ton in an annoying way and has the worst fake laugh ever. It just completely works against Hawks' fluid naturalism.
Lombard could have killed this film with another director, but Hawks reels her in enough to get the job done. I think maybe though, some of that acting shines through a little bit too much and disrupts the movie for me. His medium/medium close only shots are kept spare to let the scenes play out, and the seamless pacing and brisk transitions of fades and wipes let the film move along nicely even when some acting might be jarring it. Twentieth Century is littered with great lines throughout, not unexpected from the great writing team, an uncredited Hawks involved, with Jaffe's constant closing of the iron door and references to Webb as a grey rat, to pretty much everything Owen says. So I think in a way, I can only say that I kinda liked this. I'm guessing their are some better screwball comedies out there.