Monday, January 12, 2009

Twentieth Century (1934)

This post is part of the Howard Hawks Blog-a-thon over at Only the Cinema. Please have a look at the other interesting posts on this very talented director's early career.

Adapted from a Broadway play, Twentieth Century (1934) is at once a postcard from the past, a world of luxury train travel and screwball comedy, and is also a timeless valentine to screwballs and eccentrics of every stripe.

There are plenty of them in this movie.

John Barrymore plays a delightful egomaniac theater impresario, who discovers in a shy and clumsy Carole Lombard his latest project of self glorification, to turn her into a star. This he does, with much coaching, bullying, and jabbing her in the bottom with the pin from her corsage to make her scream to his satisfaction at the appropriate moment in the script.

From the flies of the theater, the catwalk above the stage, he watches her on opening night perform to thunderous applause. In her dressing room afterwards, he declares on his knee, his adulation for her as an artist. She returns his humble tribute by showing him how, with gratitude, she has enshrined the pin with which he assaulted her, on a heart-shaped cushion. Every scene, nearly every line from then on is a parody of the effusive natures in the world of theatre.

After a few years of hits, Miss Lombard, now Mr. Barrymore’s lover, bristles under his obsessive control, takes her own now considerable ego out of their elegant Manhattan digs and heads for success in Hollywood. After a few years of failure without her, Mr. Barrymore catches the same train she is taking to return to New York to woo her, or trick her, whichever works, into signing a new contract with him.

Walter Connolly and Roscoe Karns are terrific as the king’s bumbling courtiers. Also appearing are Charles Lane, who as previously mentioned on this blog had a part in every movie ever made, I’m pretty sure, and Etienne Girardot as the nutty reformer who plasters “Repent” notices on the train windows, on the backs of detectives, and on the unfortunate Mr. Connolly’s hat.

The lines fly fast and furious, and most are not so topical that they cannot be easily understood today. Silliness has no expiration date. However, younger audiences might not catch the significance of “The 20th Century Limited,” which was the name of the train. It was the top of the line in train travel in an era where everybody took the train. Film stars habitually took "The 20th Century” from New York to Chicago, and then took the Chief or Super Chief the rest of the way to Los Angeles.

The train left each city in early afternoon, took about 20 hours to reach either New York or Chicago the following morning. It was the most elegantly appointed, had the best food, and was the most expensive. It was a world unto itself.

John Barrymore was called The Great Profile in his day, and either to take advantage of his still handsome looks or to play upon this nickname, he is seen in profile for most of this movie. This was probably John Barrymore’s best performance in films, and perhaps partly due to his own penchant for mockery. Never seeming to completely take himself seriously, this notoriously heavy drinking, womanizing bad boy of the theater also represented the prestige of America’s theatrical “royal” family, and was himself the Hamlet of a generation. Barrymore could not seem to reconcile the two, and brought his sardonic edge and his boyish humor to a role he understood very well.

Five years after this movie was made, when his drinking took his health and his fortunes, and his acting to new lows, John Barrymore gave another theatrical performance mocking both the theater and himself. He toured in a play called My Dear Children where he began to seem to forget lines, ad libbed obscenities, and appeared to be drunk on stage. According to The Barrymores by Hollis Alpert (The Dial Press:NY, 1964), young ingĂ©nue Dorothy McGuire left the show, complaining to director Otto Preminger, “I had great admiration for John Barrymore when we started, but I cannot watch this man making a fool of himself.”

Here is an interesting clip of a radio interview Mr. Barrymore did in Omaha, Nebraska referring effusively both to Miss McGuire and her mother. If Barrymore’s stage drunkenness was an act, he continued it here.

Audiences began to flock to the play, not to be thrilled by the great John Barrymore, but expecting to watch him in a (no pun intended) train wreck of a performance. Otto Preminger rebuked him, and when Barrymore performed perfectly the next night, Preminger asked why he didn’t perform this way every night. Barrymore is quoted as replying, “Bored, dear boy.” He is Oscar Jaffe on the skids, playing with the whole notion of the theater as art and as an occupation, like a bored kid with a paddle ball.

Mr. Alpert’s book also refers to Howard Hawks’ 1963 interview in Cinema magazine where both Hawks and Barrymore were initially disappointed in Carole Lombard in the role of the temperamental actress, finding her too stiff. But when she was encouraged to let go and be more natural and really fight with Barrymore, both men were pleased with her comedic timing.

One of the best scenes is when Barrymore tries to entice her back to his company by promising her the lead in a new production of the Passion Play. This one, however, is all about Mary Magdalene, and all about her. His eloquent and over-the-top descriptions of getting real camels, as he imitates the way camels chew, and getting real sand from the Holy Land, is hysterical. At first she is swept away by his fantasy, and then we see she sees right through him. He leaps away from her kicks.

Another superb scene is when he is accidentally shot, and though the wound is superficial, he plays a grand death scene, savoring it, and almost seems to believe it himself. This is the true genius of the way Barrymore plays the role. Like a man who knows the theater, knows himself, and knows how to manipulate reality, he sometimes is so swept away by what he himself is making up, he almost thinks it real.

The script is literate and silly, but Howard Hawks brings even more to the script by following this fine line of believing the silliness. Lombard’s role is not just a shrewish diva. She believes in theater, and in Barrymore. They know it is artificial, and a touching scene reminds us they know. But like children, they believe because they very much want to believe.

Barrymore’s character could just be a loud-mouthed conman, but he isn’t. He’s an artist, every lie, every exaggeration is art. He continually creates the work of art that is himself. Just as the real John Barrymore did.

Ironically, we lost both Carole Lombard and John Barrymore a few months apart in 1942. "The 20th Century Limited” train was discontinued in 1967. Younger old movie buffs know or will learn about the talent of Carole Lombard and John Barrymore because film makes actors immortal. They’ll probably never understand how significant for both a title and a setting was the train, “The 20th Century.”


Raquel Stecher said...

I've put off watching this movie many times. I even missed an opportunity to see it on the big screen a few months ago. I guess I just needed your excellent review (and maybe a sharp pin) to get me on it!

And thanks for providing that information about The 20th Century train. That's very useful.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks for stopping by, Raquelle. I hope you get a chance to see "Twentieth Century" soon. It really is one of the best of the screwball comedies. There's a lot of social commentary in the script, but you could do a line by line analysis and be at it all day. It's chock full of movie-watching goodness.

Unknown said...

I echo Raquelle's comments-- I've also been meaning to see this & now I'm really intrigued. What a scene in the video clip. “We’re not people, we’re lithographs” Great-- & Barrymore's description of the Magdalene scenario is as good as advertised. Excellent post, as usual. & I love old train info, so that was an added treat.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, John. If you're interested in trains and you've not read it, a good book on the history and description of different railroads is "The American Passenger Train" by Mike Schafer with Joe Welsh and Kevin Holland (MBI Publishing 2001). The authors recommend that the closest thing we have today to a train the style of The 20th Century Limited and similar trains of the era is the "Coast Starlight" that runs between Seattle and Los Angeles. I haven't taken it yet myself, but I'd love to one day. And maybe plaster "Repent" stickers on the backs of people. (Okay, maybe not that.)

Unknown said...

Thanks for the book recommendation, & also the train ride recommendation-- that's more or less in or corner of the world. Should I ever ride that train & find a "repent" sticker on my back, I'll know what happened.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I'll meet you in the dining car with an innocent look on my face.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the great post Jacqueline. This is indeed an amazing film, and you do a great job of discussing its unique, ebullient humor and the self-conscious performances of both Barrymore and Lombard. I especially appreciate all the background you provide on Barrymore himself, which brings a whole new context to his role here.

My own review of this film predates the blog-a-thon, so I won't be writing about it again in the next couple of weeks, but I'm really happy to see such a literate take on this classic.

I hope to see lots more great posts like this from you and anyone else who's interested in Hawks.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Ed. I loved your review, especially the way you put:

"As a consequence, there's a self-consciousness in his performance that adds a meta-layer to the film: it's perfectly possible to laugh at Jaffe's absurd histrionics and still realize that Jaffe himself takes all of this seriously."

And your analysis of the partnership of Lombard and Barrymore is terrific. Great review.

Anonymous said...

I've just watched this movie, which must be one of the greatest screwballs there is, and very much enjoyed both your reviews. I wouldn't have realised the iconic quality of the train, so thanks to Jacqueline for pointing that out. I love the way Barrymore hams it up so shamelessly and yet gives the feeling that there is someone worth caring about underneath, hence the fierce loyalty of his sidekicks who are always quitting without actually going anywhere! I also enjoyed the way that he and Lombard seem to compete in hamminess - the scene where they are both sitting there in the carriage throwing rival fits of hysterics is especially enjoyable.

There's some interesting background in Hawks section of 'The Men Who Made the Movies' by Richard Schickel about the making of this film. Hawks says "he (Barrymore) said, 'Just why do you think I could play this?' And I said, 'Well, you're the biggest ham in the world and there is no reason why you can't play this thing because this is the story of the next greatest ham.' He said, 'All right. When do we start?'"
The same book has quite a bit about the casting of Lombard and how she grew into the part - very interesting, but, although this may be unfair, my initial reaction is to be a bit suspicious because the story Hawks tells is rather similar to the way Lily is turned into a great actress in the movie, although there is no pin involved!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you so much for your comments. You're right about their competing in hamminess, which gave the film so much energy and so much heart. They must have had a wonderful time making the film. Hawk's version of Lombard as Lily is an interesting.

Joel Bocko said...

I saw this film a few weeks ago, and I liked it but didn't consider it one of my favorite Hawks. Since then I've seen one or two Barrymore films and while enjoying them, I find myself unexpectedly longing for his portrayal of Jaffe, complete with the circles around his eyes, the messed-up hair, the hilariously debauched, fuming posture, the wallowing in glorious ham.

For me, Hawks films are like an excellent subtle dish or, to switch metaphors, a complex song whose appeal grows with repeated listening. Most Hawks films do not blow me away on first viewing (Air Force is one of the few exceptions) - I tend to enjoy them but think "what's the big deal?" Then, as they stew in my memory, and are revisited, they grow and grow in esteem, soon outstripping movies which initially gripped me (like the junk food or catchy pop song I may love on first experiencing, then get tired of).

I'm itching to see this movie again, and am thrilled you included that great clip.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi, MovieMan, thanks for visiting. I think you're right that Hawks, being subtle, improves upon repeated viewing. There's a lot to take in, lots of stuf going on, particularly in a movie like this. Far from being a one-note gag, there's a lot to glean from the film. It's funny how we have, as you say, films that grab us right off the bat, then somehow get tired of, and other films stick with us in a more enduring way even if they don't initially blow us away.

Anonymous said...

Popping back to say I definitely agree about Hawks films growing on you - with most of those I've seen, I find bits sticking in my mind afterwards and have to go back and see them again.

I've just read the commentary on 'Twentieth Century' in 'Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges' by James Harvey, which mentions that Lombard said she learnt a lot from Barrymore - she said 'he taught me to 'let go', to abandon myself to my part'.

I was also interested to see the book mention that Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur adapted the movie from their hit play, as with 'The Front Page' - the book says: 'Twentieth Century' is on the same model, in fact - in a theatrical instead of a newspaper setting. Just as in 'The Front Page', an unscrupulous and flamboyant boss is trying to reclaim an errant protegee.'

I suppose the similarity with 'His Girl Friday' is even more striking because it's a man/woman love relationship as well as a working one - wonder if Hawks was remembering 'Twentieth Century' at all when deciding to turn Hildy into a woman?!

Enjoying everybody's comments.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi, Judy, thanks for stopping by. I've not read the Harvey book, I hope I can take a look at it sometime. Thanks for the background. I do know that the Hecht/MacArthur play was revived a couple times, and that it was turned into a musical in the late '70s. I don't remember much about that, except that the delightful Imogene Coca played the nutty reformer who plasters "repent" over everything. I never saw it, but I remember their performing at the Tony Awards. I guess if they can turn Hildy into a woman, they can turn the reformer guy into a woman, too.

Nice comparison with "The Front Page". As you say, lots of similarities.

Anonymous said...

your review saved me from spending a sleepless night compulsing about which movie and actress the pin jabbing scene appeared. i had thought it was Stage Door with Katherine Hepburn and the cala lillies, but saw it a few hours ago and the scene wasn't there. a half and hour google search produced your review. problem solved. question answered. sleep now possible.........

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Anon, we are here to serve your movie needs. Sleep tight.

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