Twentieth Century

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.

Carole Lombard and John Barrymore in Twentieth Century

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 comediene; 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.”

Carole Lombard, John Barrymore star in Twentieth Century

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 interupt me and I’m liable to interupt 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.

This was Hawks’ first screwball comedy; he want on the make several more, including Bringing Up Baby and I Was a Male War Bride. He later listed it as one of the top three films he directed.

Twentieth Century may not be as well know 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.

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Nothing Sacred (1937)

Nothing Sacred, 1937, United Artists. Starring Carole Lombard, Fredric March. Directed by William A. Wellman. Technicolor, 74 minutes.

Wally Cook (Fredric March) is a reporter who needs to prove he isn’t a fraud — and fast. He learns of a woman with six months to live after a diagnosis of radium poisoning, and races to make her plight his next big human interest story. The problem is, Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), the patient in question, has just gotten a clean bill of health.

But Hazel sees a chance to get out of the small Vermont town she’s always called home and experience life in the big city. Not bothering to correct Wally’s assumption that she’s terminally ill, she lets him fly her to New York. Soon, she’s a heroine on the scale of Joan of Arc or Pocahantas. The city embraces her, and even the governor gets involved.

Her conscience catches up with her, however, at about the same time her lie does.

Carole Lombard, Fredric March in Nothing Sacred
Carole Lombard, Fredric March

Lombard had already established herself as one of the best, and likely the most attractive, of the screwball actresses. This film, with its strong script and the rare use of technicolor, helped solidify her standing. As popular as she was with audiences, she was a favorite of directors as well.  Lombard would battle for what she wanted, but once a final decision had been made, she accepted it. From there she would remain wholly committed to the production of the film as established, throwing herself into the part and defending every aspect the producers had decided upon.

The decision to shoot in technicolor paid off, although the film industry was still slow to accept it for common use. Today, whether due to the lack of quality in the technology of the time or degradation of the film in the years since, the color is, at times, distracting. It fades from one hue to the other, and skin tone is inevitably ruddy. It seems unlikely Lombard’s hair was actually that brassy. In some ways the film looks like early attempts at colorizing films, only not as good.

Fredric March in Nothing Sacred
Fredric March

The script was written by Ben Hecht, who was also responsible for His Girl Friday (or rather, The Front Page, along with Charles MacArthur). It once again displays a cynical view of journalism, focusing on deception and trickery to get the story. Numerous notable authors of the time were said to have contributed to the final script, including Dorothy Parker, Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. It is witty and sharp, and the humor holds up today.

Although it was more common at that time for comedies to receive Oscar nominations, Nothing Sacred had none. Still, Lombard’s performance was hailed as equal to her Academy Award-nominated role the year before in My Man Godfrey, and justifiably so.

Although less well known today,  this is one of the best screwball comedies of its time, and remains relevant and worth the watch for modern audiences.

My Man Godfrey (1936)

William Powell Carole Lombard My Man Godfrey

My Man Godfrey, 1936, Universal Pictures. Starring William Powell, Carole Lombard. Directed by Gregory La Cava. B&W (colorized version also available), 94 minutes.

Society elite Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) and her sister Cornelia (Gail Patrick) are seeking a “forgotten man” as part of a scavenger hunt, and come upon Godfrey Smith (William Powell) living at a city dump. The two women are on separate teams, and Cornelia is the first to offer Godfrey five dollars if he’ll help her win the prize. Her offer is met with a shove into a pile of ashes, and Irene decides it’s best to walk away as well.

Carole Lombard, William Powell starring in My Man Godfrey
Carole Lombard, William Powell

But Godfrey, after talking to the flighty Irene, chooses to help her win the scavenger hunt and triumph over her sister. To her delight, he denounces the group of wealthy citizens applauding him after her team’s victory is declared. She offers him a job as the family’s butler, which he graciously accepts.

Cornelia, still bitter toward Godfrey, does her best to undermine his abilities and character. It’s soon obvious to her, although the rest of the family seems oblivious to it, that Irene is falling for their new servant.

In addition to dizzy Irene and conniving Cornelia, there’s the mother, Angelica (Alice Brady), a featherbrained woman who drinks a little too much; her “protegé,” Carlo (Mischa Auer), a man who is clearly taking advantage of the family; and husband and father Alexander Bullock (Eugene Pallette), a man who’s burdened by the weight of his failing business and family’s antics.

Carole Lombard, William Powell My Man Godfrey
Carole Lombard, William Powell

Showing the wealthy to be frivolous and foolish was a classic Depression-era theme, as was giving someone down-and-out sudden wealth. This is a definitive screwball comedy, with yes, implausible plot elements, but a realistic plot line is hardly important here.

What is important is the effortless acting of the two stars, the strength of talent of the supporting cast, the fine direction by Gregory La Cava and all the elements of cinematography, lighting, set decoration, costume and the rest that sets movies of that era apart from movies today.

Powell had lobbied for Lombard to star in the movie, and La Cava, a personal friend of hers, was in agreement. The two stars had divorced three years earlier after two years of marriage, but remained good friends until her death in 1942. The chemistry between them is evident and somewhat mirrors their real-life personas; he the quieter, more urbane of the two, she the unconventional, outspoken one.

William Powell, Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey
William Powell, Carole Lombard

My Man Godfrey was nominated for six Academy Awards: Best Director, Best Actor for Powell, Best Actress for Lombard, Best Supporting Actress for Alice Brady, Best Supporting Actor for Mischa Auer and Best Writing, Screenplay for Eric Hatch and Morrie Ryskind.

It’s the only movie to date to be nominated in all four acting categories without being nominated for Best Picture, and until 2013, was the only film to be nominated in these six categories without winning any of them.

The movie has been colorized, and both versions are available on DVD (generally the same DVD). This trailer has been colorized:



In Name Only

Carole Lombard and Cary Grant star in In Name Only

In Name Only, 1939, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Carole Lombard, Cary Grant, Kay Francis. Directed by John Cromwell. B&W, 94 minutes.

Julie Eden (Carole Lombard), a widow with a young daughter, has taken a summer home in the country. She’s also fallen for one of the local men, Alec Walker (Cary Grant), and he feels the same way for her. Soon she discovers he’s wealthy, prominent…and married to Maida (Kay Francis).

Alec believed he and Maida were in love on their wedding day, but a note from the mother of Maida’s jilted lover straightened his thinking. Since then they have shared a public life, but little else. Even Alec’s parents (Charles Coburn, Nella Walker) are in the dark about the true nature of their marriage.

Julie tries to tear herself away from a man she believes she can never have, but Alec will have nothing of it. The two plan a future together, contingent, of course, on Maida’s willingness to grant Alec a divorce.

Cary Grant, Carole Lombard in In Name Only
Cary Grant, Carole Lombard

But Maida is calculating and focused on the good life Alec provides her. She refuses to sign the divorce papers, sending him into despair until he reaches the proverbial breaking point.

This is not Grant’s or Lombard’s finest film, but Kay Francis’ performance is one of her best. Her character is not sympathetic, but that was of little concern to her. “I want to be an actress, capable of many differently pitched roles,” she said, “not just a woman who dresses up and speaks noble lines.” Critics praised her performance, although overall reviews of the film were mediocre.

The original script was rejected by censors because Julie discovers she is pregnant — out of wedlock, and by a married man — and Alec tries hard to send her on her way without him, believing that would be best for her. Even with changes, the final plot is tricky as the Breen Code did not allow much room for divorce or infidelity, at least not when they’re portrayed in a positive light.

Cary Grant, Kay Francis in In Name Only
Cary Grant, Kay Francis

Not surprisingly, In Name Only received no award nominations. In a year considered by many to be the best of the golden age of Hollywood, competition was already steep. That’s not to say it’s a bad film. It has a melodramatic soap opera quality that keeps viewers in their seats, with a top-notch — and particularly attractive — cast. Lombard was lovelier than ever, Grant, of course, was impeccably handsome, and although played down somewhat, Francis stands out from the crowd as well.

This is the kind of movie to watch with a big bowl of popcorn and lowered expectations. In Name Only is a pleasure to watch in part because it’s somewhat unpredictable. And it’s hard to imagine a film with these three stars being anything less than a pleasure.

Now and Forever

Gary Cooper, Carole Lombard, Shirley Temple in Now and Forever

Now and Forever, 1934, Paramount Pictures. Starring Gary Cooper, Carole Lombard, Shirley Temple. Directed by Henry Hathaway. B&W, 83 minutes.

A feckless con man in constant need of cash, Jerry Day’s (Gary Cooper) latest get-rich-quick scheme involves a daughter he just learned about, Penny (Shirley Temple). He plans to sell his parental rights to her uncle, that is, until he meets and is captivated by the little girl. He takes on his role as father, but despite his daughter’s influence of honesty and integrity, doesn’t give up his corrupt business dealings.

That is, until he is reunited with his wife, Toni (Carole Lombard). He begins to make an honest living, but when it comes to paying for Penny’s education, he is short, and resorts to thievery. He is joined in this effort by Felix Evans (Sir Guy Standing), a man he’d cheated once before only to discover he was, essentially, being double-crossed.

While Toni comes to his aid, he is forced to make a choice, and it is a heartbreaking decision.

Shirley Temple, Gary Cooper in Now and Forever
Shirley Temple, Gary Cooper

Despite Temple’s key role, the story is grown-up, and not a children’s tale. Unfortunately the film suffers from abrupt transitions and wooden performances between Cooper and Lombard, who were rumored to have briefly re-started their one-time romance during filming.

Temple, however, is charming without being saccharine, a natural at her craft at the tender age of six. The movie critic for the The New York Times was less than enthusiastic about the film as a whole, but had this to say about the child actress, “The enormous charm of Shirley Temple is potent enough to make almost any character do almost anything. The little girl has lost none of her obvious delight in her work during her rise to fame. In Now and Forever she is, if possible, even more devastating in her unspoiled freshness of manner than she has been in the past.”

What is evident throughout the story is the genuine affection between Cooper and Temple. Cooper is at ease with the child, starting with the moment he pretends to be close friends with her makeshift doll. Shortly thereafter, he sets sail with his new-found daughter on a days’ adventure as pirates.

Shirley Temple, Carole Lombard in Now and Forever
Shirley Temple, Carole Lombard

The film had a lot of potential, unfortunately, it didn’t live up to the possibilities. While the story is predictable, the actors, including co-stars Standing and Charlotte Granville, had immense talent and could have brought great life to an ordinary tale. Instead, it is a pleasant diversion, but not a “must-see” film.

Fans of Gary Cooper will enjoy seeing him in this earlier role; he was not yet the star he would become, but that star quality was always an essential part of who he was and comes through even in lesser parts. Lombard’s comedic talents had only recently been discovered with her part in Twentieth Century, and this dramatic character doesn’t take advantage of her full screen presence as comedy roles would come to do so well.

This is not one of the films Temple is best known for, but it has developed a bit of a following in recent years because of Cooper and Lombard and the rapport both shared with their young co-star. Followers of any or all of the three stars will find the film worth watching.

Gary Cooper, Shirley Temple star in Now and Forever
Gary Cooper, Shirley Temple

To Be or Not To Be (1942)

Carole Lombard, Jack Benny in To Be or Not To Be

To Be or Not To Be, 1942, United Artists. Starring Jack Benny, Carole Lombard, Robert Stack. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. B&W, 99 minutes.

A renowned Polish acting troupe is compelled to take on the performance of their lives with an impromptu spy plot in this wickedly funny satire of Naziism and Hitler’s Germany. Actor Josef Tura (Jack Benny) and his lovely actress wife Maria (Carole Lombard) have both talent and ego, as well as the affections of the Warsaw public.

Among those devoted to Maria is aviator Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack), who Maria sneaks backstage as her husband is giving his dramatic performance of Hamlet. The two have taken to a clandestine romance under the eaves.

Until the war begins. Like all Poles, the Turas are living in uncertainty. Sobinski, in the meantime, is flying for freedom, and in an unfortunate case of mistaken identity, potentially puts dangerous information in the Gestapo’s hands. His realization of his error and the resulting attempts to set it right lead the entire troupe in a witty, deceptive game that inevitably trips them up at each turn.

Sadly, Lombard died in a plane crash while promoting war bonds only two months before the film’s release. She was never more dazzling, or funnier, than in this movie, and her comic delivery of the sharp one-liners with their subtle innuendo is flawless. Benny, for his part, is in his element as the husband torn between unleashing his fury at his wife’s betrayal and giving his finest performance for the sake of his country’s freedom.

To Be or Not To Be was met with sharp criticism from some, who questioned how something as serious as the Nazi occupation of Poland could be made comedy material, and strong praise from others, who recognized the satire for what it was. German-born Lubitsch defended his work, pointing out the story is as much about an actor’s drive to act, no matter what the circumstances, as it is about the war, which was heavy on the hearts of all at the time.

Robert Stack, Carole Lombard
Robert Stack, Carole Lombard

The movie received one Academy Award nomination, for Best Music, Scoring. It is now recognized as a comedy classic, one of the best of the era, and is considered by many to be Lubitsch’s finest work.

The 1983 remake of the same title, starring Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, is an enjoyable movie, but not of the calibre of the original. There is nothing quite like a film with the Lubitsch touch.

Jack Benny Carole Lombard in To Be or Not To Be
Jack Benny, Carole Lombard

 

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)

Carole Lombard, Robert Montgomery in Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Mr. and Mrs. Smith, 1941, RKO Radio Pictures.  Starring Robert Montgomery, Carole Lombard.  Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  B&W, 94 minutes.

This charming romantic comedy is a departure for Alfred Hitchcock from his usual suspense dramas, but it is a delightful one, with the best elements of the story found in his direction and the details of the finely written script by Norman Krasna.

David (Robert Montgomery) and Ann (Carole Lombard) are a happily married couple living in New York City, where he’s a successful attorney. Their marriage, while loving, is spotted by occasional arguments that can last for days — as do the reconciliations.

One day, when asked if, given the chance, would he marry her all over again, David alarmingly, if not playfully, says, “no.” That same day he discovers that, in fact, they never were legally married. Ann, too, soon separately learns this uncomfortable truth, and expects David to take steps to immediately right the situation. While he has no intention of leaving the marriage, he doesn’t do things the way she’s thinking he should, and she kicks him out.

Robert Montgomery, Carole Lombard
Robert Montgomery, Carole Lombard

David’s long-time law partner, Jeff Custer (Gene Raymond), it turns out, has always admired Ann, and he sees this as his opportunity to pursue her romantically. Ann, while not fully over David, welcomes Jeff’s advances, and events are set in motion for the permanent dissolution of a relationship that never was what the partners believed in the first place. Yet neither Ann nor David are truly quite ready to lose the other.

In later years, Hitchcock claimed he’d done this film as a favor to Carole Lombard, telling others she had been capable of more than the lightweight comedy work she’d been doing. He reportedly wanted to showcase her in something more serious, although this would hardly be called a “serious” role.

Carole Lombard
Gene Raymond, Carole Lombard

Sadly, this was the last film of Carole Lombard’s to be released before her death. Her final film, To Be or Not to Be, was released two months after the plane crash that killed her, her mother and 20 other people, including 15 servicemen.

Lombard’s comedic skills are sharper than ever here; she is beautiful and wonderfully funny, with a no-fail sense of timing. Montgomery, for his part, is deft at playing both the sophisticated and low-ball elements of his character, and has a style that, while understated, nonetheless shines bright.

Not surprisingly, Hitchcock originally wanted Cary Grant, no doubt the most popular male actor in Hollywood at the time, for the lead, but he was unavailable. Hitchcock was satisfied with Robert Montgomery in the role, however, and was later quoted as saying he believed Lombard & Montgomery could have gone on to be one of Hollywood’s leading on-screen couples had she not died.

Carole Lombard in Mr and Mrs Smith
Carole Lombard

Hitchcock’s direction as well as the above-average script helped set this film apart from other romantic comedies of the day. It has a style and feel that is unique among other films of its genre, one that is a little more sophisticated, perhaps a bit more subtle, while not letting go of the farcical and screwball elements so popular at the time.

And for the record, Hitchcock did have his signature cameo appearance in the film.

Fans of screwball comedies will no doubt enjoy Mr. and Mrs. Smith, as will anyone captivated by Carole Lombard (or for that matter, Robert Montgomery). It is a classic film well worth adding to your must-see list of films.