#79) Twentieth Century (1934)

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#79) Twentieth Century (1934)

OR “Hawks Goes Off the Rails”

Directed by Howard Hawks

Written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Based on their play, as well as the unproduced play “Napoleon of Broadway” by Charles Bruce Millholland. [With possible uncredited contributions by Gene Fowler and Preston Sturges]

Class of 2011

Sadly, no trailer for this one. Please enjoy this brief clip of Carole Lombard.

The Plot: Theatrical impresario Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) takes young untalented lingerie model Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard) and turns her into Broadway star Lily Garland. They have several hit plays and a passionate affair over the next few years, but when things turn sour professionally and personally, Lily heads to Hollywood to become an even bigger star. After a string of flops, Oscar makes one last Hail Mary (no, the other one) when both he and Lily end up onboard the Twentieth Century limited from Chicago to New York. There’s slamming doors, mistaken identity, and no piece of scenery left unchewed.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it a “sophisticated farce” and credits the film with being the breakout for director Hawks and actor Lombard, as well as Barrymore’s final victory lap as a screen actor. An essay by Michael Schlesinger is a love-letter to the film and its status as the first true “screwball comedy”.

But Does It Really?: Historically yes. It may not be the best screwball comedy, but it’s definitely the first with the genre’s staples. As entertainment, it creaks a little bit, and the source material definitely plays better on stage (Barrymore in particular is playing to a back of the house that isn’t there). “Twentieth Century” gets a pass if just for its place in screwball comedy history, and a star-making turn by Lombard.

Wow, That’s Dated: All kinds of ‘30s phrases and references in this one, plus an incredibly unhealthy dosage of ethnic slurs that wouldn’t fly today. Let’s just say “Uncle Remus” gets more than one shout-out.

Seriously, Oscars?: No nominations of any kind for “Twentieth Century”. I guess Colombia was putting all their eggs in the “It Happened One Night” basket that year.

Other notes

  • If they waited a year, “Twentieth Century” could have been produced by 20th Century Fox.
  • Why the artificial zoom when O’Malley is on the phone with Oscar? Was one of the background players doing something they shouldn’t?
  • Genii? As in plural of genie? You don’t hear that one every day.
  • I do love that chalk gag. Though at one point they complain about not being able to find more chalk in New York at midnight. I feel like there’s an app for that nowadays.
  • There are some shots where John Barrymore looks a bit like Christopher Plummer. This bodes well.
  • Special mention to Walter Connolly and Roscoe Karns as Oscar’s sidekicks Webb & O’Malley. They are both perfectly screwball ‘30s.
  • And yes, throughout the film Oscar’s cohorts call him simply “OJ”.
  • There are a handful of process shots while aboard the train, and one of them is geographically impossible. It appears that the train is riding perpendicular to the track!
  • Does anyone else notice the occasional flies buzzing around the set? It is especially noticeable once we board the Twentieth Century.
  • At one point Oscar is compared to Svengali. And he ought to know.
  • Towards the end they mention calling up Ringling. I guess that’s a “Wow, That’s Dated” now.
  • The great thing about Carole Lombard, and the reason why she’s still remembered today, is that she is still one of the handful of Hollywood leading ladies who was allowed to be sexy and funny at the same time. To this day, Hollywood typically will only let its female stars be one or the other.

Legacy

  • This film gave us the beginning of the Howard Hawks’ run of screwball comedies as we know it, as well as the short but legendary career of Carole Lombard. We’ll see more of both later on in the Registry.
  • The play of “Twentieth Century” has been revived on Broadway from time to time, most recently in 2004 with Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche.
  • The play was also turned into the operetta-style Broadway musical “On the Twentieth Century” in 1978, starring John Cullum, Madeline Kahn Judy Kaye, and a young Kevin Kline. The show was revived in 2015 as a vehicle for Kristin Chenoweth.

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