A sort of upstairs-downstairs farce, with the so-called low arts (and, more to the point, the financial gear-greasers) waiting in the parlor while John Barrymore and Carole Lombard butt heads in the second-floor bedroom for the sake of The Theater, Twentieth Century was Howard Hawks’s first talkie comedy. Barrymore plays Oscar Jaffe, the archetypal egomaniacal director (introduced in the film by the sidewalk placard advertising “an Oscar Jaffe production…of an Oscar Jaffe spectacular…directed by Oscar Jaffe”) who is so confident in his ability to create chicken salad out of chicken shit that he casts a listless, opaque shopgirl named Mildred Plotka (Lombard) in the lead of his newest production, just to demonstrate his knack for finessing out the inner talent in even the most untrained of would-be thespians. (His intricate methodology consists mainly of pricking his debutante in the ass with a hatpin to get her to scream convincingly during a duel sequence.) Unfortunately for his ego, his training succeeds to the extent that his pet progeny leaves Broadway to sew her refined oats in Hollywood. Devastated, Jaffe engages in impromptu soliloquies that prelude fabricated suicide attempts performed for the benefit of his long-suffering, and increasingly alcoholic, assistants. In the second of what are clearly two acts (a structure that betrays the source material’s proscenium arch), Jaffe has the opportunity to win his ingénue back when they both find themselves onboard the Twentieth Century express train to New York. The plot’s central conceit, that theater is the house of true art and film the way station of the illiterate, might’ve come off as self-important on stage, and maybe a bit hypocritical given the reliance on sight gags and apropos of nothing references. But Hawks’s freewheeling adaptation, with an emphasis on “speedy delivery” line readings, loose, free-wheeling blocking (i.e. the scene in which Lombard kicks at the air in front of Barrymore’s impinging embrace) and ripened-on-the-vine overacting, casually reverses and undermines the frumpy thesis by validating the effortlessly supple benefits of the seventh art.
- Columbia Pictures
- 91 min
- Howard Hawks
- Charles MacArthur, Ben Hecht
- John Barrymore, Carole Lombard, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karnes, Ralph Forbes, Charles Lane, Etienne Girardot, Dale Fuller
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