Wednesday, August 31, 2016


Oliver Webb (straight-faced):  "There are no headaches in the theatre."

Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, looking for a hit to follow-up The Front Page adapted an unproduced play by Charles Bruce Millholland wherein he vented some pent up frustration from having worked for the famous theatrical impressario David Belasco. Twentieth Century, staged by George Abbott, opened in December 1932 and ran for 152 performances. Not a bad run, but not particularly great run either. However, the 1934 film version directed by Howard Hawks is a screwball comedy classic and likely responsible for the subsequent 1950 revival starring Gloria Swanson and Jose Ferrer, and the 1979 musical version by Cy Coleman, Comden and Greene called On the Twentieth Century, starring Madeline Kahn and John Cullum, that racked up tons of Tony Awards.

John Barrymore

Director Hawks and writers Hecht and MacArthur show no mercy in this fast-paced, hysterical send-up of theatrical types. John Barrymore (Counsellor-at-Law) is breathtakingly funny as Oscar Jaffe, self-proclaimed genius. Oscar produces, writes, directs, acts, and creates stars. He is also one of the greatest self-promoters known to mankind. His latest creation is Lily Garland, the former Mildred Plotka, a lingerie model. Mildred wants to be an actress, and Oscar cajoles, bullies and seduces her into becoming an acclaimed and popular Broadway star. Carole Lombard (My Man Godfrey) is an amazing whirlwind of verbal and physical energy as Lily. 

Carole Lombard

The match of Oscar and Lily proves to be theatrical gold until Jaffe's possessiveness causes Lily to rebel in a big way. She leaves him and the "theatah" for (gasp) Hollywood! Oscar's fortunes take a drastic downturn without his Lily. Finding they are both traveling on the famous passenger train the Twentieth Century provides Oscar with one chance to get back his career and his girl. Remember, Oscar Jaffe is a man with no boundaries, especially when he is in the right - which is always.

John Barrymore, Roscoe Karns, Walter Connolly, Etienne Girardot

Oscar is aided and abetted in all of his efforts, successful and otherwise, by the loyal employees he continually fires. Assistant Oliver Webb is played by Walter Connolly (It Happened One Night) who is the most put-upon fellow you have ever seen. He suffers indignities with a stoic loyalty that is accepted, but never appreciated.

Perpetually soused publicist Owen O'Malley is played with perfect off-the-cuff timing by Roscoe Karns (His Girl Friday). He sees all, knows all, and plays the game for all it's worth. Charles Lane (You Can't Take It With You) is wryly humourous as Max Jacobs, the only one who maintains his head while in the Jaffe universe. Stealing scenes, as he always does, is Etienne Girardot (The Whole Town's Talking) as a mysterious millionaire lunatic with an odd habit for a train passenger.

Lily has had a taste of freedom and success away from her supposed Svengali, yet she keeps a sentimental keepsake of their time together. Can it be love? Oliver has tried creating another star in Lily's image but has had suffered the ignominy of failure after failure. Can it be love? Neither Force of Nature is willing to give in to the other, so there is a lot of screaming, a lot of high jinks and a lot of confusion before the train pulls into New York.

TCM is screening Twentieth Century on Saturday, September 17th at 11:45. It is an evening of "The Essentials" themed "All Aboard" featuring such other movie trains as The General, the escape from gangland Chicago in Some Like It Hot and Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts and a Broadway troupe taking to the rails in a 1932 short called Show Business.

Twentieth Century was placed on the National Film Registry in 2011.


  1. Barrymore and Lombard made for a great and wild team. One of the great train movies!

    1. They almost wear me out with their energy. Human dynamos and so very, very funny.

  2. It's always difficult choosing between Twentieth Century and To Be or Not to Be as my favorite Carole Lombard movie. (The latter usually gets the nod because of her leading man, as you might well guess.)

    But there's no contest as to my favorite John Barrymore film; not only should he have been nominated for an Academy Award for Century but he should have been polishing that Oscar on his mantle as well. "I close the iron door on you!"

    1. Yeah, I would have guessed.

      No Oscar for John. Ethel? Of course. Lionel? Sure. But John?! For a comedy?! "Never", quoth the Academy in all its wisdom. Geesh. We'll close the iron door on them.

  3. You've convinced me to re-watch this. (I did not care for it the first time around). :-)

    1. Some movies deserve a second chance and some movies need a second chance.

  4. So much to love about this film – the Lombard/Barrymore chemistry, the fact it's on a train, the script, the fabulous wardrobe...

    My fave part is the beginning, with John Barrymore as the "I suffer for my art" director. Whenever I watch this film, I always rewind this part to see it twice.

    A woman once told me she has a crush on John Barrymore's hair in this film.

    1. Barrymore's hair. So devil-may-care it lives a life of its own.

      Oscar Jaffe is an ego on legs. Barrymore slays that part. He is such a hoot. I understand why you have to watch that part twice.



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