Twentieth Century (1934)

Directed by Howard Hawks

Cinematography by

Joseph H. August (as Joseph August)

Plot

Ebullient Broadway impresario Oscar Jaffe (Barrymore) takes an unknown lingerie model named Mildred Plotka (Lombard) and makes her the star of his latest play, despite the grave misgivings of everyone else, including his two long-suffering assistants, accountant Oliver Webb and the consistently tipsy Owen O’Malley. Through intensive training, Oscar transforms his protegée into the actress “Lily Garland”, and both she and the play are resounding successes. Over the next three years, their partnership spawns three more smash hits, and Lily is recognized as a transcendent talent.

Then Lily tries to break off their professional and personal relationship, fed up with Oscar’s overpossesiveness and control of every aspect of her life. Oscar talks her out of it, promising to be more trusting and less controlling in the future. Instead, he secretly hires a private detective agency run by McGonigle to watch her every move, even to the point of tapping her telephone. When she finds out, it is the last straw; she leaves for Hollywood and soon becomes a big movie star.

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Without Lily, Oscar produces flop after flop. After one such disappointment, to avoid being imprisoned for his debts, he is forced to disguise himself to board the luxurious Twentieth Century Limited train travelling from Chicago to New York City‘s Grand Central Terminal. By chance, Lily Garland boards the train at a later stop with her boyfriend George Smith. After prevaricating, Oscar sees a chance to restore his fortunes and salvage his relationship with Lily.

Oscar schemes to get her to sign a contract with him. However, Lily wants nothing more to do with him. She is on her way to see Oscar’s rival (and former employee), Max Jacobs, to star in his play. However, Oscar manages to get George to break up with her. Knowing that Lily offers him one last chance at professional success he tells her of his wish for her to play Mary Magdalene in his new play; “sensual, heartless, but beautiful – running the gamut from the gutter, to glory – can you see her Lily? – the little wanton ending up in tears at the foot of the cross. I’m going to have Judas strangle himself with her hair.” Then Oliver thinks he has found somebody to finance Oscar’s project, fellow passenger Mathew J. Clark, not realizing that Clark is a harmless escapee from a mental asylum. When Oscar is slightly wounded in a scuffle with Clark, he pretends to be dying and gets a distraught Lily to sign his contract. The film ends with their first rehearsal, where Oscar reverts to his usual domineering self.

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John Barrymore.                                                  Carole Lombard

Don’t Close The Iron Door On This Classic

10/10
Author: Ron Oliver (revilorest@juno.com) from Forest Ranch, CA
17 August 2003

Down but not quite out, a megalomaniacal theatrical producer schemes to get his former star & lover back under contract during a wild ride on the TWENTIETH CENTURY Limited racing from Chicago to New York City.

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Director Howard Hawks with Carole Lombard and John Barrymore during filming of ‘Twentieth Century’ (1934) 

Directed by Howard Hawks from an inspired script by Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur, this is one of the seminal screwball comedies which would set the high-water mark for years to come – zany characters, living at a frenetic pace, throwing outrageous lines at each other. While the situations are completely unrealistic it makes no matter. Films like this were calculated to lift Depression audiences out of their troubles for an hour or so; today, we long for them to work that old magic again.

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In a large & spirited cast there is one eminence, one name above the title, one peak ascending over the smaller hills. John Barrymore, a lifetime of theatrical history and private dissolution etched on his remarkable face, is a grade A ham as the unspeakable Oscar Jaffe, willing to break any convention, law or dogma to get what he wants. Cajoling, pleading, threatening, cooing like a dove, screeching like a banshee, Barrymore is utterly mad, unspeakably obnoxious & thoroughly delightful. He doesn’t just dominate the film, he overwhelms it like a thick wave of brimstone & honey. Watching him infuriate his players by chalking their movements on the floor, disguise himself as an elderly Southern gentleman in order to sneak aboard the train, or arranging his own fake death scene to serve his egotistical ends, is to watch a master of the acting art play a comedic role worthy of him.

Carole Lombard is lovely, but completely overshadowed by Barrymore. Her character, while that of a great star, is pitched at a more normal tilt and exists to react to his enormities. While she’s wonderful to watch, it’s impossible to forget to whom the film really belongs.

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The rest of the cast is first rate. Barrymore’s two faithful factotums are played by dyspeptic Walter Connolly and sardonic, boozy Roscoe Karns, both of whom have learned to deal with The Master’s dictums in different ways. Hatchet-faced Charles Lane plays a director who becomes Barrymore’s theatrical blood rival. Edgar Kennedy burnishes his few scenes as a private eye who’s no match for an enraged Lombard. Handsome Englishman Ralph Forbes plays against type as a spoiled society boy who thinks he’s in love with Lombard. And for sheer looniness there’s chittering little Etienne Girardot, playing a benignly mad gentleman wandering about the train plastering large REPENT stickers on every available surface.

Movie mavens will recognize Herman Bing & Lee Kohlmar as the uncredited & hilarious Passion Players from Oberammergau.

Barrymore, Lombard, and Hawks Are Outstanding

Author: Roger Zotti from Preston, CT>
5 May 1999

John Barrymore is in rare form in Twentieth Century (1934), Howard Hawks’s hilarious, fast-paced screwball comedy. He plays flamboyant Broadway director-producer Oscar Jaffe, a man for whom the whole world is truly a stage. The always enchanting Carole Lombard co-stars as Mildred Plotka/Lily Garland. (Oscar demanded the name change because Mildred Plotka isn’t nearly as glamorous sounding as Lily Garland.) Mildred, an aspiring Broadway actress, is remade by Oscar into a star of the New York stage. For three years he directs her plays, guides her career, and is her lover. But after they have a big disagreement, she takes off for Hollywood. Her career soars; his plummets. Time passes and then on board the Twentieth Century heading for Grand Central Station, they meet again. As usual in a Hawks film, the supporting cast is outstanding; and Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s screenplay is one of their finest.

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