Twentieth Century Howlingly Funny



Directed by Howard Hawks

Columbia Pictures, 91 minutes, Pre-Code (not-rated)





It’s usually not a good thing when actors are accused of “chewing the scenery.” Then again, few actors are Lionel Barrymore or Carole Lombard. In 1934, they split a meal of film stock and made Twentieth Century, one of the funniest screwball comedies of all time.


Oscar Jaffe (Barrymore) is an egotistical theatre director/producer/company leader whom we first observe driving two longtime assistants crazy: his accountant, Oliver Webb (Walter Connolly) and Owen O’Malley (Roscoe Karns). In O’Malley’s case, he’s literally driven to drink. The latest camel-breaking straw is a rehearsal in which Jaffe is trying to explain blocking to his new “find,” Mildred Plotka (Lombard), who is better qualified to be a blockhead. Oliver and Owen know why he’s insistent upon schooling her; she’s a lingerie model.


Yet, Jaffe turns her into a star under the name of Lily Garland and they make several smash hits together. He’s too much the jealous tyrant, though, and Lily decides to go her own way upon discovering Oscar hired a detective (Edgar Kennedy*) to shadow her. As her star rises, Oscar’s sinks and the 1930s is no time to for egg-laying turkeys. Jaffe tries to create news stars but, as Oliver informs him, he can’t get backing for another flop. Oscar smells opportunity though, when he learns that Lily is on the same train as he. (The movie title derives from the Twentieth Century Limited, which plied the rails from Chicago to New York.)


This sets the table for a farce filled with opening and closing suite doors, exasperated characters, pratfalls, feigned injuries, and grand gestures. Oscar assumes roles such as concerned friend, suitor, wounded impresario, and schemer extraordinaire—all of which drives poor Owen deeper into his flask and the pragmatic Oliver to claw at what little hair he has left. Oscar’s goal, of course, is to lure Lily back into the fold. All he needs is to dispose of her snooty fiancé (Ralph Farber), convince Lily to rebuff an offer from his theatre rival Max Jacobs (Charles Lane), and find oodles of cash for a new production. And, of course, he needs both a concept and a script. As if there wasn’t enough mayhem, some wacko is slinking up and down the train plastering evangelical stickers on every available surface.


Twentieth Century is sassy, barbed, and rip-roaring funny. Barrymore* mastered the double take and had more histrionic gestures in his bag of tricks than there are stars in the Milky Way. He and Lombard also understood a basic tenet of broad comedy: if you’re going to be outrageous, go whole hog. Lombard’s “Lily” can match Barrymore’s “Oscar” vanity for vanity, ego for ego, and lie for lie.


They must have had a blast doing this film. The script from the exceptionally talented and rightly renowned Ben Hecht—with assistance from Charles MacArthur—is sharp and expertly timed. It’s one of those rare films in which even those in bit roles—Connolly, Karns, Billie Seward as Lily’s beleaguered maid, and Etienne Giradot as Matthew J. Clark—play their parts so well that they enhance the madness rather than appearing as mere props for the principals or background wallpaper. Twentieth Century is a model for how to make a broad comedy without descending to the lowest common denominator. Hats off also to director Howard Hawks, perhaps the best screwball comedy director in film history not named Frank Capra. Some, me included, prefer Hawks because he was less sugary.


Twentieth Century is nearly 90 years old, but its humor is both well-timed and timeless. Watch it. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.


Rob Weir


*Note: Groucho Marx played the role of Oscar Jaffe in a summer stock staging. Groucho wanted to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor, and apparently played Jaffe that way. Interesting choice, but Barrymore owns the role. In another tidbit, Edward Kennedy was the heavy in several Marx Brothers films, including Duck Soup in which he was the lemonade vendor befuddled by Harpo. 

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