Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Twentieth Century is often identified as the first screwball comedy but it's simply too funny and
too original to be pigeonholed that way. Ace writers Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur contribute
some wickedly witty dialogue, zingers so effortless we have to believe the authors' newspaper
backgrounds were spent among people who actually talked in deadpan one-liners and arcane classical
allusions. Viewers who relate John Barrymore only to
Grand Hotel will be surprised
to see him maintain a ridiculously overplayed theatrical ham without faltering once. As his emotionally
spoiled star performer, the beautiful Carole Lombard is almost as manic.
Pompous and overbearing theatrical genius Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) browbeats and
coddles inexperienced ex- lingerie model Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard) into a stage sensation under a
more marketable name, Lily Garland. After a string of successes she gets tired of his manipulative
jealousy and runs away to Hollywood. Barely a season later, Jaffe's career is in ruins while Lily is a
screen sensation. Fleeing creditors in Chicago, Oscar and his close associates Owen O'Malley (Roscoe Karns)
and Oliver Webb (Walter Connolly) board a train for New York and collapse in despair - until they realize
that Lily is on board as well, in the next stateroom. The trio immediately hatch a plan to hoodwink Lily
into signing a new contract.
Howard Hawks had comedy success built in to Twentieth Century, as this three-act play had
already had the bugs worked out long before it came time for transformation into a screenplay. Hawks'
standard stand-back-and-watch-the-fur-fly approach to comedy is perfectly suited for the farcical
story of a manic producer bent on re-signing his meal-ticket star. Hawks' shooting style is less
restrained than in his later years. Tossed into the thick of the fray, we soon forget about Hawks'
clever but unobtrusive camera work.
Lucille Ball idolized Carole Lombard and often said that she tried to pattern her comedy persona
after her. This must have been the vehicle that so impressed Ball, as Lombard spends about two
minutes as a quiet ingenue before blooming into a nervous, tempermental wreck of a star. Always one
step away from insanity, Barrymore's Jaffe "inspires" a stage scream from Lombard's Garland by jabbing
her with a pin. The writers wisely make that pin a treasured keepsake for Garland, as the picture needs an
occasional sentimental touch to avoid total cynicism. Jaffe continually tears
his hair out, splatters black paint over posters and repeatedly fires his loyal lieutenants O'Malley and
Webb, with the laughably pompous pronouncement, "I close the iron door on you."
Luckily, the acerb Roscoe Karns and loveable Walter Connolly do most of the the mid-range
farcical exposition-carrying and plot support. They're terrific, perhaps even better than
the leads. Stone-drunk Karns is always ready with a snappy, witty wisecrack. Constantly being fired and
rehired, Connolly's portly Webb is more likeable. He's dedicated to protecting his boss even when he thinks
the man is off his rocker. Webb is also more susceptible to the bizarre characters on the fated train
to New York, including one hilarious little madman (Etienne Girardot) who pastes stickers everywhere on
the train reading "Repent, the end is
near," and writes bogus checks for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Both Karns and Connolly get to
mug to their heart's content - they have to, in order to play against the exaggerated Barrymore.
Naturally, it all comes down to a series of con games perpetrated against Lombard's agitated movie
star. Lombard would develop a more balanced screwball character later on in delightful pictures like
My Man Godfrey. Here she's
more of a frantic foil for Barrymore's excess energy. She also looks like she's on the verge of a
headache much of the time, whereas her later comedy characters tended to be carefree, loveable ditzes.
Some of the jokes are pretty suggestive, as when Karns sits on a boat-shaped bed, pretends to work
invisible oars and asks Lombard if she and Barrymore use the bed for much rowing! Twentieth Century
came out just as the production code was coming in so a lot of risqué lingerie and flimsy
costumes are also in use. If one isn't laughing, one's bound to be staring.
Columbia's DVD of Twentieth Century is plain-wrap but in good shape. The B&W image doesn't pop but
it's solid and well encoded. The constant dialogue is fast, loud and clear. This is one really
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Twentieth Century rates:
Video: Very good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 22, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson