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 fiancĂ© (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. 


Oh William!= Oh, No, not More Lucy Barton!



OH WILLIAM!  (October, 2021)

By Elizabeth Strout

Random House, 221 pages.




Fiction writers often say that their characters “surprised” them. It’s a mysterious-sounding but accurate way of saying that the logic of the narrative forces writers to consider what a character would do in a particular circumstance. In that sense, characters evolve personalities that are not necessarily how a writer first imagined them. That’s among the reasons why characters return for a second act, or a third or more. John Updike famously penned a tetralogy and a novella spotlighting Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom and won Pulitzer Prizes for two of them. It’s important, though, to know when to part with a character.


 Elizabeth Strout wrote two Olive Kitteridge novels, won a Pulitzer for the first, and praise for the second. In 2016, she published the acclaimed My Name is Lucy Barton and followed the next year with Anything is Possible. Now, four years later, Oh William! is book three of the Lucy Barton cycle, though it’s ostensibly about her aging first husband. I was underwhelmed by Anything is Possible and less so by Oh William! One reason is that I find Lucy as relentlessly annoying as William is self-centered. Though she’s now in her 60s, a feted author, and the mother with two adult daughters, she remains a girl-woman. Were this a male character, I’m sure some reviewers would be screaming, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, grow up.”


Those who’ve followed Lucy know about her impoverished childhood and emotionally distant parents. Having grown up financially strapped myself, I’d not deny that such experiences can scar and carry over into adulthood, but most of us manage to move on. Not Lucy. As we meet her now, she’s recently widowed. Her first husband, William Gerhardt, now wants more from Lucy, though not in the way you might think.


William, an accomplished parasitologist, still goes to his university lab every day, though he no longer teaches. At 70, he’s not the womanizer he used to be either, but he remains the same emotionally challenged egoist that prompted Lucy to walk out on him and her young family decades earlier. He’s partnerless again as Estelle, his third wife, has left him. Although Lucy and William remained friends–he calls her “Button” and he is “Pillie” to her–neither is looking for any sort of made-for-each-other redemptive winter romance. What William really wants is for Lucy to go northern Maine with him.


Courtesy of an Ancestry.com gift from one of his daughters, William has learned he has a half-sister. He has no idea what he wants to do with that information except make his way to Houlton, a down-on-its-heels town on the U.S./Canada border in the middle of potato country. He hopes to figure out his next step when he gets there. Inexplicably, Lucy agrees to come along. There’s really not much to suggest why she would do so, other than the fact that his late mother, Caroline Trask Gerhardt, was one of Lucy’s early adult mentors.


The trip to northern Maine yields surprises about Caroline, William’s German father, and his half-sister, though surprisingly little about our two protagonists. Suffice it to say that those old enough to remember the Gerhardts don’t have much good to say about them, and that includes Lois, William’s previously unknown sibling. Alas, William and Lucy are the same woe-is-me whiny individuals we’ve seen before. I doubt it was Strout’s intention, but this part of the novel’s most revealing parts concern how places such as Bangor, Presque Isle, Fort Fairfield, and Houlton are closer to despair than to the American Dream.


The book’s title reflects the fact that Lucy repeatedly utters the phrase “Oh William!” She uses it to express surprise, sympathy, frustration, and futility. From this reader’s perspective, this repetition is more of a reflection upon a paucity of fresh ideas than any sort of emotional roller coaster. Still another indication is that Strout resorts to having Lucy explain things by referencing her novels; that is, she’s speaking in Strout’s voice rather than her own. Strout seeks to build parallels between Caroline and Lucy, but it ends up as a mechanistic contrivance rather than probing Lucy’s psyche. Perhaps that’s because Lucy doesn’t have much depth. For a character who has allegedly become a renowned author who has traveled extensively and feels at home among the chaos of New York City, Lucy is akin to a frightened gray rabbit. Lucy Barton was interesting to contemplate the first time, but not a second or third. Strout needs to move on. Lucy Barton is no Rabbit Angstrom.


Rob Weir  


The Lowering Days a Stunning Debut





By Gregory Brown

Harper, 268 pages.



Lowering days are those of gloom and foreboding. One origin story, possibly apocryphal, holds that the phrase came from the spring day on which those who died in winter were removed from storage and buried. Gregory Brown's stunning debut novel borrows the concept for a ghost story without ghosts. It’s a spin-the-generations story about violence that reaches across time to look at debts never fully repaid and hard deaths in a hard place.


Brown hails from the Penobscot River basin of northeast Maine. The river bears the name of Native Americans who, along with the Passamaquoddy peoples, were the original inhabitants of the land. They still reside there, as do numerous mixed blood individuals. Courtesy of Maine’s Indian Land Claims Act of 1980, they stand to reclaim vast tracts of the sparsely populated region southeast of Bangor.


Brown’s protagonists are the Ames and Creel families. David Almerin (“Almy”) Ames narrates events we infer occurred in the 1980s. He is one of three sons born to Arnoux and Falon, he a Vietnam war deserter-turned-boatmaker, and she an attractive woman with a spine of steel who starts a local newspaper titled The Lowering Days. Lyman was a war hero, the father of two–daughter Wren and son Galen–and is husband to Grace, also a stalwart presence though she was something of a rebound wife. During their shared adolescence, Falon was pursued by three boys: Arnoux, Lyman, and Billy Jupiter who was part Native American. In the logic of small-town USA, Arnoux is now more popular because he made amends with his past through his craft, and Lyman is forever known as “Indian Killer because of a single drunken night in which all three boys were goofing around a cliffside raven-filled apple tree known as the Ghost Tree. They were trying to impress Falon, but Lyman's antics sent Billy over the side. In the here and now, Arnoux and Lyman barely tolerate one another.


Not much happens in such a hardscrabble region, but Japanese investors have shown interest in buying a long closed papermill. That is, until Molly, a 14-year-old native girl inflamed by environmentalism and an understanding of history, burns down the mill in protest for how it poisoned Penobscot waters. It probably would have been an unsolved crime had Molly not written an unsigned letter to the paper. Should Falon publish it? She knows that doing so has a high possibility of providing locals with enough clues to implicate Molly and maybe put her life at risk. There’s also the fact that family friend Moses Jupiter, a distant relative of Billy, is Molly's grandfather.


Many subplots emerge from this setup. Molly and her father Adam are on the lam in an area described as "water and wind so heavy and present, you screamed to escape it." The feud between Arnoux and Lyman reopens, spins out of control, and filters down to some of their children. Among other things, Arnoux’s sons Simon and Link commit an unthinkable act in a region in which fishing is the only real livelihood. How to heal such rifts? How to keep Molly safe? Lyman doesn't help matters when he lets his anger get the better of him and reminds locals of his old nickname.


The Lowering Days is so rich and so vivid that it's very hard to summarize it. Its themes and props include recurrent patterns of losing parents, premature death, mystical links to ancestors, banshees that cross oceans, cycles repeated and broken, race, fragmented love, ravens, a Penobscot legend of a woman who cut her husband to pieces in the name of love, and individuals pushed beyond their limits. Above all, it's a coming-of-age tale that could be subtitled “How Almy Became David.”


David's path to becoming a doctor begins when his uncle Reggie rebuilds a cabin near East Grand Lake Falls Lake on the Maine/New Brunswick border. David has serious issues to work out and a stint as a clinic doctor in the middle of nowhere helps. But this is by no means a summation or even a major theme, aside from a more general one of hurt, healing and redemption.


By far the most spectacular thing about a novel lies with Brown’s elegiac tone, which transforms remote places into a mystical and magical lands. The book is also filled with wisdom. When Arnoux explains to his children why he abased himself to Lyman he explains, “Because I want you to be able to remember what the right thing looks like.” David comes to grips with inner hurt when he begins to realize, “Sometimes love can't call love back…. People come and go and sometimes the debt to the departed ones long outlast their presence.” Moses punctuates this when he remarks, “Death is a circle. But they made it a line. Over time the link between the world of the living and the world of the dead got broken in people’s minds.” Reading The Lowering Days will help you repair that misconception.


Rob Weir