#10 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.
I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen a John Barrymore movie ever until Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century, and, from what I’ve heard, it’s all downhill from here. This is where Barrymore’s over the top acting was, supposedly, best utilized for comedic purposes, and it is a wonderful thing to witness. Adapted by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur from a play they wrote, it’s the story of a director and an actress that have become dependent on each other but can’t really stand each other. It’s almost a screwball comedy version of After the Rehearsal by Bergman.
Barrymore plays Oscar Jaffe, a Broadway director of some renown who has discovered his new muse, the lingerie model Mildred Plotka (played by Carole Lombard) whom he quickly renames into the more marketable Lily Garland. The first day of rehearsal is directed by Max Jacobs, Jaffe’s assistant director, until Jaffe arrives, and Jacobs cannot understand why Jaffe would have offered a great role to such a terrible actress. Jaffe shows up, explodes at his assistants, and directs Lily to such a minute degree that he outlines her every movement on the floor with chalk. His direction ends up so complete and effective, though, that Lily becomes an overnight Broadway sensation. Skip ahead a few years, and the two have made a series of great productions, but their relationship is fraying.
Jaffe is a control freak who demands complete fealty to him from Lily. Lily, obviously, is chaffing under such close scrutiny and is beginning to break out without care for her potential career. She’s a star now, as it is, and she shouldn’t have to bend to the will of her director off the stage as well as on, even if they are a romantic couple. When Lily threatens to leave in a revealing dress to go dancing, Jaffe threatens to throw himself out the window of her penthouse apartment. The ploy is enough to keep Lily in his clutches just long enough for him to organize wire taps on her phone through a private detective. Discovering the detective and taps, Lily ends it all with Jaffe and runs to Hollywood to be a movie star.
Skip ahead a few years, and Lily is the queen of Hollywood while Jaffe is reeling from his latest in a line of flops starring the young woman he picked up and tried to replicate Lily’s success with. Despite the lackluster reviews, financial troubles, and lack of sales, Jaffe insists that his latest, a play of Joan of Arc, is his most artistically successful play yet. And yet, he still has to sneak by his creditors at the Chicago train station to board the Twentieth Century back to New York. Coincidentally, Lily is going back to New York at the same time and boards the same train with her newest beau. This is about the halfway point of the film, and that first half is really just a rather elaborate setup for the comedic stylings that dominate the titular train ride back to New York.
John Barrymore is absolutely wonderful as Jaffe, especially when Jaffe is at his most desperate. Barrymore reminds me of Gene Wilder at his most manic in The Producers here. His mannerisms are completely over the top. Apparently Hawks sold Barrymore onto the role by saying that Barrymore was going to play the biggest ham of hams, and Barrymore leans into it. Every move and word is exaggerated, and it ends up meshing perfectly with the comic situation he’s in. He enters a desperate bid to win Lily back contractually, but in order to do that, he has to chase away her beau and get her to sign a contract before they reach New York where she’s going to sign a contract with Max who had taken the initiative to start a rival theatrical company after Jaffe fired him.
All of the pieces are in place, and Jaffe has to give the performance of a lifetime. Everything revolves around everything else in a plot involving Jaffe’s two long suffering assistants, Lily’s beau, an escaped mental patient plastering “The End is Nigh” stickers all over the place, a troupe of Jewish actors, a play about Mary Magdalene, and the train conductors that are trying to establish order through it all. It’s a deliriously entertaining final half of the film, anchored by how Hawks kept the dialogue as snappy as possible through forcing his actors into rapid fire deliveries.
Barrymore is wonderful, but the cast around him is great as well. Walter Connolly and Roscoe Karns are Jaffe’s long suffering assistants, and they deal with Jaffe’s constant threats and firings with a mixture of drunken apathy and long gestating frustration that helps fill out the edges of the scenes. Carole Lombard plays Lily as one would come to expect from a Hawksian woman. She’s strong, independent, fierce, and also perfectly matched by Barrymore’s Jaffe.
The 1930s is full of Hawks movies that I’d never really even heard of, and it’s turning out to be full of gems as well. Twentieth Century turns into a madcap event of a screwball comedy by the end, creating an almost exhausting but consistently amusing film that gave me a stupid little grin from beginning to end.