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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Judge Priest (1934)

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  • directed by John Ford
  • starring Will Rogers, Tom Brown, Hattie McDaniel, Anita Louise, Henry B. Walthall, David Landau, Berton Churchill, Stepin Fetchit
  • Judge Priest, a proud Confederate veteran, dispenses justice in small town Kentucky.

“Maybe I did have a hankering for the spirit of the law and not the letter.”

Judge Priest is pre-Monument Valley John Ford as you’ve frequently seen him before—chasing the spirit of America through near-mythological visions of his small-town upbringing. Not a lot of the film worked for me necessarily–I needed more resonance and less broad, slow-to-unwind portraiture–but the more that I think about it I realize that it is pivotal in helping to piece together the director’s vision of the country’s rich past and present.

Like many other Ford works, the film highlights patriotism on an intensely personal level, as if the many trials, stains, and lessons of our country’s history were boiled down into the soul of just one man. This concept translates to his Westerns as well, but aesthetically what Judge Priest brings to mind most is 1939’s Young Mr. Lincoln. Both centered on a contentious court case and the leads of each, with their strong convictions and folksy charm, both lead the lonely life of a widow during rapidly changing times. The latter film executed everything better in my view, the script especially, but I suspect that Ford held Judge Priest in higher esteem because in 1953 he revisited the Irvin S. Cobb series of stories for The Sun Shines Bright, on record as Ford’s favorite Ford. Perhaps I would be more forgiving of the film had this been an origin story, the first adaptation of Cobb’s series instead of a standalone piece. There are too few minutes devoted to actual plot and the film takes a lot of time scene-setting, kind of forcing the audience to adopt the lackadaisical, julep-sipping attitude of its geography.

We open with Priest passing down a judgment on Stepin Fetchit’s character, an accused chicken thief. Fetchit was the go-to guy for Hollywood if a script called for a buffoonish cartoon character of an African American. Just as the film’s other black star, Oscar-winner Hattie McDaniel, was the proud and tuneful Mammy choice of the time. These were deeply stereotypical portrayals as were the hootin’ and hollerin, tabacca-chewin’ Confederate Pride folks in the film. There was also Will Rogers’ Colonel Sanders outfit to contend with, as well as a taffy pulling party, which is apparently a thing where people socialize while literally pulling taffy between each other. There should have been no surprise of what was in store from the opening title crawl which placed the film in a small Kentucky town in 1890, but it was indeed the Old South turned up to about a 20 out of 10.

Ford even brought into the fold Henry B. Walthall, one of the more memorable faces from D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. The veteran actor’s epic scene that closes the film is the typical stuff of Confederate romance novels everywhere, but it is the most visually striking scene of the film, with Walthall’s free-floating head superimposed over great Civil War battle scenes, and his speech is delivered with striking charisma and stoicism.

For all the wince-inducing moments of Judge Priest, I give praise to both Ford and Rogers for the solid undercurrent of tolerance and racial acceptance running through the film. Ford’s reliance on stereotype in this case was not one of ignorance but to draw lines as stark as possible and perhaps heighten the audience’s response in the process. For Rogers’ part, the film definitely clicks best in the scenes which see Priest connecting with Fetchit’s Jeff Poindexter or McDaniel’s Aunt Dilsey on a personal level, whether in song or leisurely jest.