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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Review: Twentieth Century (1934)

* * *

Director: Howard Hawks
Starring: John Barrymore, Carole Lombard

They don't make 'em like they used to. Take the great Howard Hawks, add the incomparable John Barrymore, and for good measure mix in the divine Carole Lombard, and you get Twentieth Century, one of the major works of the screwball comedy era. While not among my personal favorites of the genre, I can't deny that Twentieth Century is a masterfully put together film, one which manages to have Hawks' signature high energy even though the narrative is almost claustrophobically contained, and one which finds a way to allow both the lead actor (in one of his last great roles) and the lead actress (in one of her first great roles) to play the "crazy," scene stealing half of the romantic pairing and make that work. While not really embraced at the time of its release, it has since rightly become recognized as one of the era's finest.

Barrymore stars as Oscar Jaffe, a star Broadway producer who, as the story opens, has undertaken to turn a lingerie model named Mildred Plotka into a star named Lily Garland (Lombard). The going isn't easy, at first, as Jaffe puts Lily through an arduous training process to turn her into a "real" actress, but the results can't be denied: Lily becomes a star and their partnership results in a series of smash hits on Broadway. Off stage, however, their relationship begins to turn poisonous, with Lily feeling increasingly suffocated by Jaffe's obsessive attention and his inability to allow Lily to have even a little bit of control over her own life. Lily eventually breaks things off when she learns that Jaffe has gone so far as to hire a private detective to spy on her, and she ends up leaving both him and Broadway behind in order to make it big in Hollywood. Lily's star continues to rise after she makes the break, but Jaffe's fortunes rapidly fall as his previously golden touch turns into something else entirely and his failures quickly begin to outnumber his hits. Broke and on the verge of being arrested for his inability to pay his debts, Jaffe dons a disguise and sneaks aboard the Twentieth Century Limited, a train from Chicago to New York, along with his long suffering assistants O'Malley (Roscoe Karns) and Webb (Walter Connolly).

When Lily boards the train at a later stop along with her boyfriend, Jaffe sees it as his opportunity to mend the partnership both professionally and personally. However, while getting between Lily and her new boyfriend proves easy enough, getting Lily to agree to work with him again is far more difficult - particularly since Jaffe doesn't actually have a project ready for them to work on together and is instead making it up as he goes along. With Lily on her way to meet with his rival to make a deal to star in his latest play, Jaffe is desperate to get her to sign a contract with him and pitches an idea to her that she could play Mary Magdalene in the Passion Play. The only problem, as Webb is quick to point out, is that Jaffe doesn't have the funds to stage such a production (particularly given the mammoth undertaking that he describes for Lily as he tries to entice her to join him). Fortunately there's a passenger aboard the train who confides to Webb that he just doesn't know what to do with all his money and has been giving it away left, right, and center on the train. Unfortunately, that man isn't exactly what he appears to be.

The primary draw of a film like Twentieth Century is watching two great actors meet on screen and be great together. Though Barrymore was 26 years Lombard's senior and considerably more experienced as a star, Lombard more than holds her own against him and matches him note for note in every scene that they share together. Jaffe is a flamboyant character, as theatrical as his profession suggests, which gives Barrymore a lot of scenery to chew in that way that takes bigness to an art form and which, against a less assured actor, would threaten to completely overshadow whomever shared the scene. Lombard, though she never goes quite as big as Barrymore, nevertheless manages to wrangle her share of the focus away from him through her skill as a comedian, particularly the way that she transitions Lily from over the top despair to something more measured and self-aware and then back again. She dramatically laments when she has an audience and then, when she realizes the audience has gone, acknowledges the act for what it is and drops it. Yet, and this is what really stands out about the performance, this doesn't feel "false" or like its a put on for effect; Lombard makes it look so effortless that the roller coaster of ups and downs just seems like Lily's natural state of being.

Both Barrymore and Lombard are great here and, together with Hawks, inject a lot of life and energy into the piece which helps it rise above the inherent "staginess" that comes with a lot of play to movie adaptations (in this case the play and screenplay are both by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur). Most of Twentieth Century takes place aboard the train, which makes the story feel very contained and kind of small despite the bigness of the performances, but the film opens the story up by dramatizing Jaffe and Lily's past rather than simply referencing it (as is done in the play), and by catching up with them after they get off the train. While the film never totally shakes that feeling of having started as a play, many of the best scenes takes place within the confines of the train and Hawks keeps things fast and sharp. Twentieth Century isn't the most laugh out loud comedy that any of Hawks, Barrymore, or Lombard made in the course of their careers (and seen today there's something pretty dark about Jaffe and Lily's relationship which would make it read as abusive were it not for the steeliness of Lombard's screen persona), but it remains a solidly entertaining movie and would make an excellent primer for anyone just starting to explore the screwball genre.

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