Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Twentieth Century (1934)

Directed by Howard Hawks 
Starring Carole Lombard, John Barrymore

"I never thought I should sink so low as to become an actor."

Oscar Jaffee (John Barrymore) is a raving lunatic. He's also a hotshot Broadway producer. Twentieth Century opens with Oscar berating the cast of his latest production, especially young, fledgling actress Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard), who he was sensibly renamed Lily Garland. Garland can't really act, but she's young and beautiful, and Oscar knows he can make her a star if he screams at her enough and pokes her in the ass with a pin when she's supposed to cry. So he does both of those things, over and over.

Amazingly, it works, and we fast-forward a few years. Lily and Oscar are the toast of Broadway. They are rich, famous, and miserable. Somewhere along the line, they developed a (very) dysfunctional romantic relationship, and now it's disintegrating in a loud and messy fashion. She wants to wear slinky dresses and go out dancing; he wants her to stay home and amuse him. So, they scream at each other and he threatens to throw himself out a window. He does that a lot. She encourages him to get it over with. He chickens out. This goes on for quite some time.

Eventually, Lily wises up and splits town. She moves to Hollywood and makes it big in the moving pictures. Meanwhile, without his star, Oscar's theater goes bankrupt. His team - two berserk drunks - know the only way to get out of debt and climb back on top is to get Lily back. Oscar says he'd rather die, but then again, he says shit like that all the time. Due to various kooky circumstances, Oscar and Lily both end up on the same train, along with their respective loony entourages. Oscar tries every dirty trick he can conjure - and his sleeve is jammed full of 'em - to get her to sign a contract. And she does everything she can - including kicking him in the chest, repeatedly - not to. As the train rattles on, the two battle it out, each intent on getting their way, whether they have to kill themselves - or each other - to do it.

Director Howard Hawks, the crackerjack visionary behind the classic Bringing Up Baby, is firing with both barrels in this hilarious, over-the-top screwball comedy. Barrymore's Oscar is completely nuts, a twitching, wild-eyed madman with a tangled head of hair that looks more and more like Medusa as time goes on. At various points during the film, he wears a cape and fakes a broken arm, which makes him look like Bela Lugosi's goofy twin brother, thirsty for contracts, not blood. And his dialogue - delivered with all the conviction of an asylum inmate - is amazing. Once you hear him dismiss a colleague, which he does many, many time here, with his signature line ("I close the iron door on you!"), you may never end an argument in a sensible fashion ever again. The point is, John Barrymore is incredible in this.

Likewise his costar. Gorgeous and thoroughly modern and just as crazy as her sparring partner, Carole Lombard is the perfect parody of every entitled, self-deluded actress from then til now. The 1930's were a great decade for women in the movies, and many of the films made in that era featured fearless, empowered ladies with acid tongues and fists of fury. Lily Garland, despite her hysterics, definitely fits that bill. Lombard brings her to vibrant, roaring life.

Classic stuff, really. It zips along at breakneck speed, a blur of screaming, fighting, and laughs galore. Slinky blonde Lombard's a stunner (as is Billie Seward, as Oscar's stoic secretary), and Barrymore's punch-drunk producer is unforgettable. It may be almost 80 years old, but Twentieth Century has not lost any of its luster over the decades. Highly recommended.

- Ken McIntyre 

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