Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Today’s post is the latest addition in our series of Pre-Code Essentials. Here’s the updated list.
45. Twentieth Century (1934)
A tempestuous theatrical director tries to win back the star he created and then drove away. Starring John Barrymore, Carole Lombard, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, Ralph Forbes, Charles Levinson (Charles Lane) and Etienne Girardot. Screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Based on the play by Charles Bruce Millholland. Directed by Howard Hawks. Distributed by Columbia Pictures.
“In young Lily Garland (Lombard), Broadway impresario producer Oscar Jaffe (Barrymore) sees the next big star, a view not shared by others. However, Jaffe does end up coaxing out of the naive young woman a great Broadway actress. Jaffe mentors her to one Broadway success after another, to a point where Garland is as big a Broadway name as he is, with the same difficult temperament to boot. She ultimately sees their professional and personal relationship as being Svengali-like, to which she rebels and runs off to movie stardom in Hollywood. Without Garland, Jaffe’s career declines. By happenstance however, both Jaffe and Garland end up on the same Twentieth Century train back to New York. Jaffe takes this opportunity to try and lure his protégée back under his wing on Broadway, but Garland has other thoughts on her mind, basically anything but Jaffe. However, Jaffe figures a good part and a few acting chops of his own might be able to persuade Garland that she should return to her life with Jaffe. A lunatic let loose on board the Twentieth Century adds a few complications to the proceedings.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of IMDb.)
This classic Howard Hawks comedy, along with Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), are said to have set the template for all screwball comedies to follow — a conception that, even in our Pre-Code survey on this blog, has proven to be slightly untrue: we’ve seen earlier screwball efforts with most of the elements already in place (like 1933’s Bombshell, for instance). Yet quibbles over genre development aside, in watching Twentieth Century today, as with It Happened One Night, one nevertheless gets the sense of witnessing a perfectly formed product — a beautifully crafted masterwork that knows precisely what it’s doing in projecting the type of elevated farce many other films will attempt to replicate. In other words, there is a sense of definition being applied here. And while I personally tend to credit It Happened One Night with pinpointing more of the comedic attitudes that will come to define similarly intentioned pictures (with lighter, frothier, and more kinetically amusing beats), Twentieth Century cements important structural truisms — like the singular setting (in this case, a train), high octane energy, off-beat casting, and a sense of tragic darkness — which are staples of Hawks’ work, the screwball genre, and, of course, the Pre-Code era.
Regarding the outstanding casting, this picture achieves many of its laughs from the interplay of the leading characters, particularly Lombard and Barrymore, both of whom are expertly chosen for their parts. He is a natural ham, and in pictures of more dramatic intentions, this mode of operation can sometimes seem an affront to modern day sensibilities of believability. However, in the role of a temperamental Broadway director, Barrymore’s melodramatic timbre proves an asset to the character — not only for maximizing the comedy, but also for believably fleshing out what already is, on the page, an extremely theatrical presence. It’s a perfect fit and, frankly, it informs the picture’s low-stakes-that-seem-high mania (a screwball necessity). In contrast to Barrymore’s natural and unsurprising strength in his role is Lombard, who is a bit of a revelation… Well, not to audiences today who are aware of the course that her (all too brief) career would take in the years ahead, but in early 1934, Lombard was still your typical Pre-Code ingenue, with a little charm and a little grit. In Twentieth Century, she rose to Hawks’ direction and showed moviegoers that this was the kind of gal who enjoyed getting her hair mussed up and roughing it with the chumps — in other words, she proved she could act like a fool. And what’s more: she enjoyed it. Together, they make the perfect pair — old meets new, and it’s energizing.
Frankly, the casting is primarily what makes the film worthwhile, for while the screwball antics of the plot, adapted by the authors of the 1932 Broadway play of the same name (which itself was based off an unproduced play called Napoleon Of Broadway), are delightfully realized, the picture’s highest moments occur in its performance-driven latter half, once the action shifts to the train and the film is forced to focus on this eccentric assortment of characters, including Connolly and Karns as Barrymore’s sidekicks, and Girardot as an insane passenger — the role that was gender-bent and played by Imogene Coca in the 1978 Broadway musical adaptation On The Twentieth Century. (Speaking of which, I consider the musical to be a brilliant work itself that matches the strength of the original picture — something that I can’t really say for many other film-to-musical works. In fact, it’s interesting to note that, even if one didn’t know about the ’78 musical, there’s a grand operatic quality about the ridiculous shenanigans these characters pull — Oscar’s fake death is practically an 11 o’clock number — that seems ripe for musicalization.) So, it’s the actors, you see, who supply the tension, for their job is to keep the hijinks elevated, and my recommendation that one seek out Twentieth Century therefore has as much, if not more, to do with the players than simply the play.
For in full disclosure, I debated about whether or not to highlight this as a Pre-Code essential, given that one’s enjoyment of the picture is really not predicated on its identity as code-defying. However, while the double entendre dabbled film isn’t abundantly salacious — like many of the other Essentials we’ve discussed — there are some Pre-Code motifs inherently cooked into the plot: the presence of a mentally ill passenger, the incorporation of the Passion Play as both a plot point and a source for outrageous comedy (to which Breen did object), and, especially, the undeniably unhealthy relationship shared by our (anti-)hero and (anti-)heroine, which can be viewed as masochistic: they like tormenting and being tormented by the other. It’s sick and twisted — far darker than Gable and Colbert’s rapport in It Happened One Night (1934) — and represents something seedier than we’d find under the Draconian rule of the Code. So because these elements are so vital to the premise’s viability, it turns out that Twentieth Century is more “Pre-Code” than it would first appear, making it both a Pre-Code and an Essential: a Pre-Code Essential. (This picture has been released; buy it here.)
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in again on Tuesday for my thoughts on the best from the fourth season of Murphy Brown!