“That's the trouble with you, Oscar. With both of us. We're not people, we're lithographs. We don't know anything about love unless it's written and rehearsed. We're only real in between curtains.”
When learning about screwball comedies there are a few films that will always be the first mentioned: Theodora Goes Wild, The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday, My Man Godfrey, and Twentieth Century. Twentieth Century has its moments of outright hilarity, but what else would you expect with a cast that includes the Queen of Screwball Carole Lombard and the ham of all hams John Barrymore being directed by Howard Hawks?
Oscar Jaffe (Barrymore) is a famous Broadway director but he is a bigger ham and more dramatic than any of his actors. His plays are very successful. He is putting on a new play with a young actress named Lily Garland (Lombard). During a rehearsal he is called down. While watching the rehearsal he feels Lily is not giving the part her all she is the lead and she is holding back. Jaffe dismisses everyone but has Lily stay. He draws all her steps down on the stage in chalk and goes over the part with her over and over. He gets an idea to show his leading lady what he wants out of her. Jaffe pulls out a pin and sticks in Lily’s backside! The yell she gives is exactly what Jaffe was looking for.
The play is a success and Lily has now become a sensation. Jaffe tells Lily she is the best actress he has known and he wants to take her all the way to the top. He does as he promised but he and Lily have a falling out. He is keeping her from going out and doing what she wants. She tells him that for the past three years everything she has done has gone through him first and she is tired of it. The next day he apologizes but then has her followed. Lily finds out, she hits the detective, and runs away on a train heading for Hollywood.
Jaffe is now without his leading lady. He finds a new one but she is no good and his four new plays flop horribly. He has to get out where he is because he owes people money that he does not have so he leaves in disguise on the Twentieth Century train. Lily also happens to be on the train and all hell breaks loose between the two egotistical actors.
Up to this point John Barrymore had only been known for his dramatic roles and Carole Lombard has only been known for her looks. Howard Hawks saw their comedic sides off screen and decided to put their off screen humor on screen. What he got in return was comedic gold. All the praise for this film should be directed to Barrymore. The man was so utterly dedicated to acting and was a big ham in real life that he was perfect as Jaffe. I had such a good time watching him he was so funny and sometimes so over dramatic but never annoying. The whole time I kept wondering if Gene Wilder was inspired by Barrymore when he acted in some of his films especially when he went overboard. Lombard was pretty good. I am still finding it hard to believe that she is the Queen of Screwball Comedy. I found her to be funny in some scenes but most of the time I found her to be way too overdramatic, I guess it was supposed to be her character she became a diva but I was just annoyed (also didn’t the wardrobe department realize that she needed a bra desperately through most of the film?). There is a scene where Barrymore makes a really funny face and then she makes the same face and then snaps back at him. Their faces were so funny. Then of course there is the scene when Lombard is so mad at Barrymore she kicks him and that was really funny because he just kept going and going and knew she was annoyed with him. At the end of filming Twentieth Century Barrymore gave Lombard and autographed picture of himself saying she was the best actress he had ever worked with bar none. They did work very well together.
Howard Hawks is a genius he knew how to get the best out of his actors. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote the screenplay. The pair would write His Girl Friday six years later. Hecht is one of my favorite screenwriters he wrote some of my favorite classic films. The dialogue in the film is crazy and completely intelligent.
Twentieth Century is a true classic. Before this there were comedy films but nothing like this had been seen. With so much overdramaticness and comedy there was also a bit of sexual frustration and tension between Lily and Jaffe. You can see it and feel it whenever they fought or whenever they were around each other. Twentieth Century is a film that should not be missed if you love Screwball Comedies. John Barrymore as Oscar Jaffe is one of my favorite film performances and I am sure you will enjoy him as well.