Twentieth Century (1934)

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  • directed by Howard Hawks
  • starring John Barrymore, Carole Lombard, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, Ralph Forbes, Charles Lane, Etienne Girardot, Dale Fuller
  • A Broadway producer who has fallen on hard times tries to get his former lover, now a Hollywood diva, to return and resurrect his failing career.

“We don’t know anything about love unless it’s written and rehearsed.”

The elements of the screwball comedy genre were floating around as early as the development of sound, primarily in the work of Ernst Lubitsch at the turn of the 1930s. By 1934, a romantic angle was no stranger to comedy, nor were endless strings of misunderstandings and farcical narrative choices, all building blocks of screwball. What completed the puzzle though–something that arose partly in response to amped up production codes as the decade unfolded–was the breakneck pacing, as if censors wouldn’t be able to catch every little detail. In other words the quick, witty verbal sparring between the sexes was an easy-to-miss signal to non-physically suggest sexual tension and frustration.

In early 1934, ready or not, audiences would witness two of the first screwball comedies and ones that would go on to influence a large portion of Hollywood’s business for the next decade. Everybody except perhaps its difficult star Claudette Colbert was ready for It Happened One Night, which was received as well as can be by America and the Academy. Twentieth Century, though, needed a lot more time for its value to be acknowledged. As John Barrymore’s immensely memorable Oscar Jaffe remarks in the movie, “the gold is all there, but we must mine it.”

That Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century has graduated from the depths of box office hell to such classic and beloved levels is a testament to the film’s writing, the performances, and–what audiences could not have known at the time–one of the more fascinating examples of film mirroring real life.

First the casting of Carole Lombard, an actress just getting started without a breakout hit, which proved to be as contentious a choice as it was on screen for Oscar Jaffe to transform Mildred Plotka into his muse, Lily Garland. Lombard had a few mid-level roles, but there was still no evidence that she could command the screen, let alone sell comedic material. Hawks, like Jaffe, saw a potential in her that she didn’t even know was there and he stuck by her loyally throughout. There was no rolling of the dice with the casting of John Barrymore, already a more than capable talent with a familiar face. Long before people like Peter Sellers and Gene Wilder created similar brands of seething and intimidating characters who bullied their way into hilarity, there was this particular portrayal of Oscar Jaffe. Twentieth Century was Barrymore’s high point, creating an indelible character through sheer force, and it also marked the beginning of the end for his stature as a leading man.

The exact dynamic of Garland surpassing Jaffe is the story of Barrymore and Lombard’s careers at this point in time. On screen you have the god-like Oscar Jaffe going from toast of the town to an in-debt, babbling vagrant. Same ego from beginning to end but the perception gradually changes from intimidating to pathetic. Lily Garland starts the movie unable to act her way through a scene, is coached by Jaffe, and ultimately blossoms into Broadway’s and then Hollywood’s leading diva, leaving the headache that is her former lover and mentor behind. “The sorrows of life are the joys of art.”

What I loved most about Twentieth Century was that it changes on a dime over and over between being smarter and dumber than is any typical romantic comedy audience. There was no even plane of existence for these characters. They were either bloviating with high-minded references to D’Artagnan and Sappho or wallowing in the silliness of slapstick. There was also great poetry to be found in the array of insults they hurled at each other, such as old fainting Bertha, Anathema, scorpion, fishwife, and my favorite, Hairpin Annie, the pride of the gashouse.

Twentieth Century came very close to achieving perfection in my mind but alas the formula of a screwball is laden with traps, especially as the brisk and charismatic foundation established starts to move into absurdist territory. The religious Matthew Clark subplot, which worked in parts once it was brought into the fold of the main story, went through a few too many forced moments in order to get there. The ending too was dangerously close to falling apart at the seams and had little of the charm displayed up to that point.

Much has always been made about the so-called “invisible style’ of Howard Hawks. There will always be efforts to brand directors in order to find the common current surging through their films—one of my favorite hobbies. Nobody in their right mind would question his greatness but the visual and narrative details of what makes Hawks Hawks is a trickier proposition, especially with him jumping between the comedy, drama, science fiction, crime, noir, and western genres so seamlessly. Of the Hawks films that I have seen there is a distinct lack of noise or sentimentality. What one may call no nonsense. More importantly, and this runs counter to Oscar Jaffe in many ways, is that he builds a production with high quality scripts and dominant players and shies away from loudly advertising his own role. “A good director is someone who doesn’t annoy you,” he once said. Hawks is not above behind the scenes manipulation to get it right, but with a smart script like Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht’s, two incredible supporting performances by Walter Connolly and Roscoe Karns, and the monstrous comedic performances at the center, it’s probably easier than ever to step aside.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

One Response to Twentieth Century (1934)

  1. Pingback: Bringing Up Baby (1938) | classixquest

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