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 ingénue 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.”
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century.