Oscar Jaffe is a Broadway producer with a penchant for the dramatic and egotism so steeped that his name appears on the billboard for his new play no less than five times. When the director wants to can the hayseed he has personally chosen to star in his production, Jaffe takes the reins and transforms her into a huge success. After a string of hits though his jealousy gets the best of him and she leaves for Hollywood, leaving him with a string of bad luck though. Fortuitously, the two end up together on a New York bound train from Chicago and the maniacal director will do anything in his power to get her back.
"Twentieth Century" is one of the earliest screwball comedies and one of the best. Versatile director Howard Hawks' film, written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur from their stage play, is a madcap romp, replete with many belly laughs, thanks to the performances of John Barrymore and Carol Lombard. In a performance that surely inspired Mel Brooks' Max Bialystock in "The Producers", Barrymore gives a wickedly funny performance as the delusional and self-aggrandizing Jaffe. Lombard is just as adept as well, and their onscreen chemistry is marvelous. Hawks was a maverick director who crossed genres as well as any other colleague. In his early career, his screwball comedies including this, "Bringing Up Baby", and "His Girl Friday" set the standard for madcap movies and remain some of the most riotous ever filmed.
Director: Howard Hawks
Cast: John Barrymore, Carole Lombard, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, Etienne Girardot, Ralph Forbes, Edgar Kennedy
Run Time: 91 m
Breakout role for Carole Lombard.
By Patrick Nash
With Howard Hawks directing a script by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard, it's no surprise that Twentieth Century is a sparkling gem of a screwball comedy. The story flies along at breakneck speed, the dialogue is filled with clever witticisms and Barrymore and Lombard try their damnedest to upstage each other every step of the way.
Barrymore plays Oscar Jaffe, the most flamboyant, egotistical Broadway impresario ever to walk the boards. Lombard is Mildred Plotka, a former lingerie model whom Jaffe has discovered, rechristened Lily Garland, and intends to turn into a star of the Great White Way. He succeeds alright but his overbearing jealousy pushes his newly minted star Westward. She goes to Hollywood and becomes a sensation in the movies.
Several years later, a down on his luck Jaffe has to sneak out of Chicago to avoid his debtors after his most recent play (a production of Joan of Arc) has flopped miserably. Along with his two loyal employees he boards the Twentieth Century Limited bound for New York City. As fate would have it, Lily Garland just happens to be aboard that very same train. In no time Jaffe has concocted a plot to win Lily back and hopefully turn his fortunes around in the process.
The supporting cast includes such screwball comedy regulars as Walter Connolly and Roscoe Karns (they play Jaffe's loyal but verbally abused partners), both of whom appeared in Frank Capra's smash hit It Happened One Night that same year. Charles Lane plays Jaffe's producer competition and ex-assistant Max Jacobs (formerly Mandelbaum). Etienne Girardot recreated his scene stealing role of the hilariously insane Mathew J. Clark from the stage play. He has a sticker fetish and a penchant for writing phony checks.
But make no mistake; Twentieth Century belongs to its two stars.
Oscar Jaffe was the role John Barrymore was born to play. He's a much bigger ham than any of his actors, given to grand theatrical gestures and impossibly melodramatic speeches. For example when Lily walks out on his play he throws a fit. Screaming, "Anathema! Child of Satan!" before destroying posters of his wayward star. Later he says to Lily about her movie career, "When I left that movie house, I felt some magnificent ruby had been thrown into a platter of lard."
Lombard gets to show a bit more range, while demonstrating just why she was the most beautiful madcap heroine ever to appear in screwball comedies. At the beginning of the movie she is the bland untalented Mildred Plotka. Under Jaffe's constant mentoring she quickly blossoms into the star Lily Garland, with an ego to match. With little provocation she now bursts into tantrums, stamping her feet while screaming things like, "Who cares about your respect? I'm too big to be respected!"
By the end of the picture we realize what the two of them have known all along, namely that they are two peas in a pod. Or as Lily puts it, "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."
As movie entertainment, Twentieth Century is timeless.
As presented by the Austin Film Society