by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The movie we watched last night was a quite good one: Twentieth Century, a screwball comedy classic from Columbia Pictures in 1934 directed by Howard Hawks (and very much in his style even though both Lewis Milestone and Roy Del Ruth were sought for the director’s assignment before Hawks was hired) based on a play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur that premiered in New York December 29, 1932 and was itself based on an unproduced play by Charles Bruce Millholland called Napoleon of Broadway (though the screen credits make it look like Hecht and MacArthur did a direct screen adaptation of Millholland’s play). The similarities to the Hecht-MacArthur play The Front Page (previously filmed by Howard Hughes with Lewis Milestone directing in 1931 and remade by Hawks at Columbia in 1940 with a gender-changed lead that brought the two stories even closer!) are readily apparent, though the world is that of Broadway theatrical production instead of newspapers and prisons.
Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore, top-billed) is a Broadway producer who sells his shows on his reputation alone — we see a poster for his latest effort, The Flame of Kentucky, and the name “OSCAR JAFFE” is all over the poster in huge letters, more than once, while the name of the playwright is in teeny-tiny type under the title (one wonders if this ever happened to Hecht and MacArthur themselves!) — and his latest effort is to take an underwear model from a local department store, Mildred Plotka (Carole Lonbard), and transform her into a great actress and his latest star. He outfits her with the new name “Lily Garland” without bothering to tell either her or anyone else in his organization except his press agent, who shows up with a reporter there to interview “Lily Garland” and is told, “There’s no one by that name here.” Needing a way to get his new star to scream on cue at the news that her father has killed her lover, Jaffe sticks her with a hat pin — and she preserves the pin as a relic as she goes on to a smash success and a three-year career as Jaffe’s on-stage star and off-stage lover until his antics, including repeated threats to commit suicide whenever Lily or anybody else in his organization threatens to do something that displeases him, finally lead her to bolt and light out for Hollywood. She’s a tremendous success in the movie capital while Jaffe’s next few shows — including an elaborate production of Joan of Arc — are mega-flops.
Sneaking out of Chicago in an elaborate disguise as an old man to avoid a sheriff with an attachment order, Jaffe boards the Twentieth Century train from Chicago to New York — where Lily Garland is also heading because she’s planning a stage comeback with Jaffe’s former protégé turned rival, Max Jacobs (Charles Levison). Jaffe’s $250,000 in debt and his only chance to salvage himself financially is to sign Lily for the lead in his next play — and for the second half of the film Jaffe and his associates, business manager Oliver Webb (Walter Connolly) and general assistant Oscar O’Malley (a delightfully dry-witted Roscoe Karns), battle Lily herself, her new boyfriend George Smith (the interesting Ralph Forbes, wasted in a Ralph Bellamy-style part), a harmless weirdo named Matthew J. Clark (Etienne Girardot) who sticks “Repent! The time is at hand!” stickers all over the train and pretends to be super-rich; and two actors (Herman Bing and Lee Kohlmar) from the Oberammergau Passion Play whose appearance leads Jaffe to a brainstorm to buy the rights for New York and produce it with Lily as Mary Magdalene. It ends about the way you think it will — with Jaffe faking his own death, Lily signing a contract with him as a noble gesture since she thinks he’s just about to croak anyway, and the two of them rehearsing another crappy play at the end with Jaffe being just as browbeating and generally impossible as before.
Twentieth Century (a title Columbia thought of changing because they didn’t think people outside of New York, Chicago or Los Angeles would know what it meant —when the show was turned into a musical in 1978 it was called On the Twentieth Century to give playgoers a clue that the title referred to a train) is an acknowledged classic but one it’s been unusually difficult to see lately — I think it was run once on the UCSD channel but otherwise I hadn’t had a chance to see it since it turned up on one of the early-morning movie shows in the Bay Area in the early 1970’s — and what makes it great entertainment is that the characters are so hammy one can overact to one’s heart’s content and not hurt the show at all. After just having listened to some of John Barrymore’s surviving broadcasts of scenes from Shakespeare, it was odd to have this fustian rhetoric being hurled at me in the context of a modern-dress comedy — though it’s arguable that Barrymore, at least on film, came off better as a comedian than as a dramatic actor, especially once (as had happened by 1934) his years of alcoholism and other self-abuse had caught up with him and ravaged his looks. And Lombard is just right for the female lead: ditsy, conceited, as diva-ish as Jaffe and resentful of the Svengali-and-Trilby comparisons continually being made about their relationship (all the more annoying since Barrymore had actually played Svengali to Marian Marsh’s Trilby four years earlier!).
While it’s a pity that Groucho Marx never put the role of Jaffe down on film (he played it in stock on stage during 1934, during a temporary break-up of the Marx Brothers, and his reading was probably less fustian, more cynical, less egomaniacal and more grounded and calculating), Barrymore is great in the part on his own terms (and it’s at least the second time in his film career, after Counsellor-at-Law, in which he played a Jew!), and Twentieth Century emerges as a perfectly wonderful laff-riot but with its heartwarming aspects as well.