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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Twentieth Century

Howard Hawks first screwball comedy, and indeed one of the first of that genre, was 1934's Twentieth Century, also based on a play. It is enlivened by two deliriously over-the-top performances by John Barrymore and Carole Lombard.

Barrymore plays Oscar Jaffe, a theatrical impresario (based on David Belasco) who is mounting a new play. He has plucked a lingerie model (Lombard) to play the lead role, though his employees think she can't act. He makes her a star, though, but is often cruel and bullying. But they enter a personal relationship and have a string of hits. But he when he hires a private detective to follow her, she breaks it off and goes to Hollywood.

Cut to four years later. Barrymore has had a string of flops, and Lombard is a movie star. He has debts after a disaster in Chicago, so has to don a disguise to get on the train of the title, headed for New York City. By coincidence, Lombard is also on the train, and when Barrymore finds out he tries to get her to sign a contract to play Mary Magdalene.

Twentieth Century isn't as brilliant as His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby, but it's amusing to watch the two leads throw everything at the wall. Barrymore in particular is a joy to watch, enunciating with the utmost precision, his passion for the theater trumping all. He has two employees who are also great stock types--Walter Connolly as his long-suffering accountant, who constantly gets fired (whenever he fires someone, Barrymore dramatically says, "I close the iron door on you" miming a closing door) and Roscoe Karns as some kind of fixer, who is constantly drunk.

There are other running gags in the film, such as an old man (Etienne Girardot) who is running around the train sticking "Repent!" stickers everywhere, even on the backs of the conductors.

Lombard, who was only 26 at the time, is perhaps too over-the-top, so much so that it becomes kind of a gag. She was one of the pre-eminent comedic actors of her day, and a beauty, to boot. If I had been around then I think I would have had a huge crush on her.

The film was turned into a Broadway musical in the '80s, for which Kevin Kline won a Tony as Jaffe.

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