Silver Screen Standards: Twentieth Century (1934)
Although it’s not as widely celebrated today as Bringing Up Baby (1938), director Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century (1934) is another go-for-broke screwball comedy with protagonists who are all bonkers. This earlier picture stars John Barrymore and Carole Lombard as dueling divas whose egos are too big for their own good, and each of them is so over the top with hammy histrionics that you can’t take anything they do seriously. For some people that might be too much of a good thing, but I love the fast-paced wackiness of this ridiculous story and the hilarious performances of its stars. If you enjoy the rapid patter of Hawks’ other screwball classics, like His Girl Friday (1940) and Ball of Fire (1941), you’ll delight in the romantic and verbal antics of Barrymore and Lombard in Twentieth Century.
Barrymore plays Broadway director Oscar Jaffe, who takes eager young actress Mildred Plotka (Lombard) and transforms her into stage star Lily Garland. Oscar gets more than he bargained for, however, as Lily’s ego and need for attention fully match his own, which dooms their partnership both on stage and at home. Lily abandons Broadway for Hollywood, leaving Oscar’s subsequent productions to flop, until the pair meet up again while traveling on the 20th Century Limited. Oscar hatches a plan to get Lily back with help from his two chief assistants, Oliver (Walter Connolly) and Owen (Roscoe Karns).
The movie is adapted from a stage play, which shows somewhat in its limited settings, but most of the action takes place on a train where we don’t notice that confined space as much. It’s the train that gives the movie its name; the 20th Century Limited ran between New York and Chicago from 1902 to 1967. You might, however, justly infer that the title refers to the modernity of the story in its focus on dual careers, rapid change, and the way Hollywood was then luring away stage stars with more money and greater fame. The train speeds along just like the dialogue, carrying its cargo of eccentric characters from one city to another. A moving train is a liminal space where transformation happens and shifts occur; our characters are by no means on solid ground. Oscar, Lily, Oliver, and Owen all vacillate accordingly, between moods, resolutions, states of inebriation, and feelings toward each other, but they’re not the only mutable passengers aboard. Adding to the confusion is Etienne Girardot as Matthew J. Clark, an elderly, milquetoast fellow who is sometimes sane and sometimes mad as a hatter. In his latter state he runs around the train covering everything in sight with “Repent” stickers and leading train employees on a frantic chase. We come to suspect that nobody in or on the 20th Century is likely to be sane.
While many screwball comedies, including Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby and Ball of Fire, feature a chaotic woman who disrupts an orderly man’s life, Twentieth Century more closely resembles His Girl Friday (1940) with its chaotic man who schemes to regain control of the woman who has gotten away from him. The difference here is that Lombard’s Lily is every bit as unscrupulous and uncontrollable as Oscar; she kicks, screams, throws tantrums, and make scenes with equal enthusiasm. The result is a battle of the hams between Barrymore and Lombard, which is a riot onscreen but would make for an unbearably toxic relationship in real life. Narcissists usually seek out less self-obsessed partners for good reason; there’s not enough room in the relationship for two of them. Oscar and Lily are a perfect match for each other because they’re exactly alike, but they inevitably clash because they both have such enormous egos. Neither of them learns anything from this experience or improves in any discernible way because they’re more like caricatures than human beings, a fact that Lily recognizes and even highlights. “We’re not people, we’re lithographs,” she tells Oscar. “We don’t know anything about love unless it’s written and rehearsed. We’re only real in between curtains.” That truth undermines any hope for a happy ending, and indeed we don’t really get one, but we do get the sense that Oscar and Lily will forever be rushing back and forth between New York and Chicago, love and loathing, getting together and breaking up, like perpetual passengers on modernity’s crazy train.
Twentieth Century did bring real change to Carole Lombard’s career, as it launched her into a string of great screwball comedy roles, including My Man Godfrey (1936), Nothing Sacred (1937), and To Be or Not to Be (1942). Barrymore, already a legend of stage and the silent screen, was waning thanks to age and alcoholism and would die at the age of 60 in 1942, just a few months after Lombard perished in a tragic plane crash. See him in the screwball classic Midnight (1939) for a late comedic role, but don’t miss earlier films like The Beloved Rogue (1927), Svengali (1931), Grand Hotel (1932), and Dinner at Eight (1933). Roscoe Karns and Walter Connolly both have memorable roles in It Happened One Night (1934), with Karns also turning up in His Girl Friday and Connolly appearing with Lombard again in Nothing Sacred. For even more screwball delights, see fan favorites like The Awful Truth (1937), The Philadelphia Story (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943). Twentieth Century can be hard to get on DVD or Blu-ray, but it’s available on a handful of streaming services, including The Criterion Channel.
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.
A favorite of mine Barrymore is magnificent