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.
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 funny picture.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Twentieth Century rates: