Twentieth Century (1934)

“She loves me; I could tell that through her screaming.”

Twentieth Century Poster

Synopsis:
An egomaniacal Broadway producer (John Barrymore) tries to convince his former protege and lover (Carole Lombard) to star in his latest show.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that this Howard Hawks classic (co-written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur) “was the first sound comedy to have the male… and female leads… not only carry the brunt of the comedy… [but also] have their characters make absolute fools of themselves” — which, combined with the film’s “frenetic pacing”, is why it’s often considered to be the first “screwball comedy” (rather than Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, released earlier the same year). The story itself is essentially a no-holds-barred contest of egomaniacal wills between Barrymore (Oscar) and Lombard (Lily), both of whom remain “in a state verging on lunacy” until the “very end” of the story; indeed, Lily ultimately “becomes just as pretentious” as Oscar, proving “Hecht and MacArthur’s cynical point… that once the theater gets in your blood, you lose your humanity”.

As Peary points out, while “at times the script is slight… the film itself is consistently funny because of the bravura performances by Barrymore and Lombard” — both of whom are perfectly cast and in rare form here (Peary accurately notes that Lombard is likely the only actress who could come close to matching Barrymore’s hamminess). However, given that Oscar and Lily — who scream their way through the film — aren’t particularly sympathetic characters, I find myself admiring Twentieth Century more than I actually enjoy it; they deserve each other, but I was glad to say goodbye to them by the end of the film. The most memorable thread of the movie, for me, remains the hilarious subplot involving a lunatic passenger (Etienne Girardot) who wantonly posts “Repent” stickers all over the train. Given its place in cinematic history, Twentieth Century, should be seen by all film fanatics, but it may or may not become a repeat favorite.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • John Barrymore as Oscar Jaffe (Peary awards him an Alternate Oscar as Best Actor of the Year)
    Twentieth Century Barrymore
  • Carole Lombard as Lily Garland (nominated by Peary as Best Actress of the Year in his Alternate Oscars book)
    Twentieth Century Lombard
  • Etienne Girardot as mad Mr. Clark
  • Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s madcap script

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance, and for its lead performances. Nominated as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars book.

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One Response to “Twentieth Century (1934)”

  1. A must.

    Though I agree that, unlike ‘The Band Wagon’ (my favorite musical), it is not a love letter to the theater. (The two films would make for an interesting double-bill nevertheless.)

    I’ve seen this film quite a few times and – just seeing it again – it seems like Barrymore simply runs away with it. He is endlessly interesting to watch here – he just doesn’t seem to waste a second, and is helped greatly by quite a few terrific things he’s given to say. Lombard’s performance, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to hold up on repeated viewings. I don’t know that it’s entirely her fault, though. Her character doesn’t seem to be drawn as well as Barrymore’s, somehow. She has wonderful sequences but her overall performance comes off as hit-or-miss. She seems to be at her best in the first half of the film.

    Those who do theater will most likely be the film’s biggest fans.

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