[Film Review] Twentieth Century (1934)

Twentieth Century poster

Title: Twentieth Century
Year: 1934
Country: USA
Language: English, German
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Director: Howard Hawks
Ben Hecht
Charles MacArthur
based on the eponymous play of Charles Bruce Millholand
Cinematography: Joseph H. August
John Barrymore
Carole Lombard
Walter Connolly
Roscoe Karns
Ralph Forbes
Charles Lane
Dale Fuller
Etienne Girardot
Fred “Snowflake” Toones
Rating: 6.0/10

Twentieth Century 1934

Being the devil’s advocate, I hazard to say that, as a progenitor of screwball comedy under the craftsmanship of Howard Hawks, who would in due course bring into fruition of quintessential specimens like BRINGING UP BABY (1938) and HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940), TWENTIETH CENTURY has lost much of its luster compared with his nearest cousin, Frank Capra’s more sought-after IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934), came out in the same year, and another commonality: both movies have Walter Connolly and Roscoe Karns in the supporting cast.

The plot can be boiled down to a sado-msochistic relationship between an egoist Broadway impresario Oscar Jaffe (Barrymore) and a prima-donna Lily Garland (Lombard), née Mildred Plotka, a lingerie model turns theatre star under his exclusive tutelage. While it seems that the Jaffe-Garland collaboration is synonymous with success, their relationship actually comes apart at the seams due to Oscar’s ingrained controlling nature and objectification of Lily as his private property.

When Lily eventually leaves him and Broadway, and subsequently becomes triumphant in Hollywood, Oscar’s theatre output continues to slump sans his muse, his company is going to the wall, only two put-upon sidekicks Oliver Webb (Connolly) and Owen O’Malley (Karns) show their loyalties, both have an inclination of intemperance though, a career hazard by working for Oscar far too long. But fate reunites them and Lily on the 20th Century Limited from Chicago to New York, can Oscar win her heart back, or if that is quite a long shot, at least he can persuade her to sign a new contract with him, to halt his business downturn?

Both Barrymore and Lombard chew up the scenery to the hilt and apparently wallow in their verbal tit-for-tat, but in the eyes of a new audience from the 2lst century, unfortunately Barrymore’s overbearing lunacy and Lombard’s sentimental tomfoolery do not chime with today’s aesthetic values, there is no sympathy or empathy can be teased out, in spite of its initially charming divertissement of the duo’s two-play rehearsal segment, the story begins to pall once the train journey starts.

A subplot pivots around a lunatic on board (is there only one?) , Mr. Clark (Girardot), a diminutive but harmless asylum escapee, actually makes for a wackier farce than the central bawling game, it is an ominous sign for this odd satire, don’t tell me it represents the hallmark of talkie in that era, that simply cannot be true!

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