Twentieth Century (1934)
Howard Hawks directed Twentieth Century six years before he directed His Girl Friday, but the two movies have a lot in common. Both are based on plays by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and both feature an egomaniacal man willing to resort to less than ethical behavior to get the woman he loves to come back to work for him. Both are also fast-talking (though Twentieth Century comes nowhere near His Girl Friday in speed and overlapping dialogue), full of screwball silliness, and peopled by lunatics and shady characters. In Twentieth Century, however, the setting is the crazy world of the theater, not the crazy world of newspapers.
John Barrymore plays Oscar Jaffe, a Broadway impresario whose manner is far more flamboyant and dramatic than any of the roles he directs onstage. He is forever threatening suicide, proclaiming his great love for the theater and all those who work in it and ripping into those who displease him. Jaffe discovers a lingerie model named Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard), renames her Lily Garland, and through a combination of bullying and wooing turns her into a famous actress.
Not to mention his lover. The movie is not shy about letting us know that the pair are living in sin. It’s 1934 after all, just the beginnings of production code enforcement, and filmmakers are still slipping things in under the wire. The bed in Lily’s apartment (where she swans around half-naked in very skimpy lingerie) is a huge, art deco boat-shaped thing, and early in the movie she makes a comment to a visiting reporter about how Oscar was right beside her when she received a call. “Rowing?” the reporter replies. Ha!
Lily is almost as much of a drama queen as Oscar, and years of success make her temperamental and rather full of herself. She chafes at Oscar’s Svengali-like control of her career and her life and longs to escape and have a good time. She finally breaks free when he does one infuriating thing too many, heading to Hollywood to become a film star. Something theater snob Oscar finds completely distasteful, of course. Movies! What could be worse?
Those movies you were in! It’s sacrilege throwing you away on things like that. When I left that movie house, I felt some magnificent ruby had been thrown into a platter of lard.
Without Lily Oscar’s productions flop. He’s on the verge of bankruptcy and losing his theater when he boards a train (the Twentieth Century) from Chicago to New York. Who should happen to be on board, and in the cabin right next to his? Lily and her Hollywood boy toy.
From then on it’s one wacky thing after another as Oscar attempts to win her back and get her to sign a contract with him. He proposes projects for her (his pitch for a new play in which she would play Mary Magdalene is hysterical), threatens to kill himself, lies and bullies her and still somehow manages to be strangely charming. See what I mean about the His Girl Friday similarity? Oscar Jaffe is as egotistical and full of it as Walter Burns, he just expresses it differently, being a man of the theater instead of a hardboiled newspaperman.
Carole Lombard is wonderful as Lily. She’s as arrogant and full of overdramatic poses as Oscar, pouting, weeping, shouting, and all the while declaring how much she hates temperamental people. Even if she can’t always see how ridiculous she is, she can clearly see how full of malarkey Oscar is. She tells him he doesn’t know how to be a real person, and that if he slit his throat greasepaint would run out. Substitute “newspaper ink” for “greasepaint” and Hildy Johnson could have said the same thing to Walter Burns. Both couples were so obsessed by and in love with their work that they never figured out how to live like normal people.
That’s the trouble with you, Oscar. With both of us. We’re not people, we’re lithographs. We don’t know anything about love unless it’s written and rehearsed. We’re only real in between curtains.
Not to say that the two movies are carbon copies of each other; they’re definitely not. Twentieth Century has a lot to say about the ridiculousness of show business and the narcissistic people in it. But there are enough similarities that it’s interesting to compare the two – and to see that the already accomplished Hawks became even better at directing this kind of story in the years between Twentieth Century and His Girl Friday, the latter of which is even faster, wittier, and more sophisticated than the former. I don’t think anyone directed screwball comedies better than Howard Hawks.
John Barrymore was a notorious scenery-chewing ham, so this role was absolutely perfect for him. He got to play with and mock his reputation and it’s so much fun to watch. Carole Lombard became the zany screwball actress we all remember her as with this picture. It was her breakthrough role and she’s fantastic in it.
A very funny movie. I’m glad I finally saw it.