Twentieth Century, 1934, Columbia Pictures. Starring John Barrymore, Carole Lombard. Directed by Howard Hawks. B&W, 91 minutes.
Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore), renowned Broadway producer, has made a new discovery, a young woman barely passable as an actress, one Mildred Plotnik (Carole Lombard). He changes her name to the more exotic Lily Garland, and with intense work, transforms her into a star. Over the next three years, the pair churn out hit after hit.
They share a personal as well as professional relationship, and Lily is fighting the constraints of Oscar’s control. When he hires a private detective to track her every move, she reaches her limit and heads to Hollywood, where she promptly becomes a movie star.
But Oscar is determined to get Lily back. When the two find themselves coincidentally on the same train (the Twentieth Century), he plots to win her heart by offering her the role of “the world’s greatest courtesan,” Mary Magdalene, in his latest effort.
His success will depend on a little trickery, some flattery and a portion of good fortune.
Twentieth Century became one of the definitive screwball comedies, along with another film released the same year, It Happened One NIght. The script by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (with some uncredited work by Preston Sturges, among others) is sly, witty and fast paced. It was also the film that truly launched Lombard’s career as a comedienne; both she and Barrymore shine in their performances in this pre-code movie.
The New York Times film critic said of Barrymore’s performance, “Mr. Barrymore acts with such imagination and zest that he never fails to keep the picture thoroughly alive.” His acting ability initially intimidated his co-star, who later said, “I’ll never forget my first day on the set…for years ever since I was a tiny kid, I had heard of the exploits of ‘Wild Jack’ Barrymore and of what he had done to people who had blown their lines or muffed their cues.”
Things went far better than she expected, however, and in a later interview she said, “Perhaps he isn’t now the great star he once was. But star or not, he knows more about acting than most of us will ever learn. He taught me more in the six short weeks it took to make the picture than I had learned in five years previous.”
Howard Hawks, the director, later spoke to the fast pace of Twentieth Century, which wasn’t achieved through editing, as was—and is—common practice. “It’s done by deliberately writing dialogue like real conversation—you’re liable to interrupt me and I’m liable to interrupt you—so you write in such a way that you can overlap the dialogue but not lose anything.” It’s a style that has often been imitated, with varying degrees of success.
Twentieth Century may not be as well known as other films of its genre, but it is sharp in its comedy and performances. While Barrymore may have been in the throes of his decline, you can’t see that onscreen; he is as funny and fine in this role as any other. The movie also has the advantage of being pre-code, allowing certain subtleties in dialogue and performance. It is a film every classic movie fan should know.