Howard Hawks made all sorts of pictures and worked with all sorts of stars. But one of his earliest films, based on a hit play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, was a screwball comedy with Carole Lombard and John Barrymore.
No question, it’s a classic.
1934’s Twentieth Century still inspires debate about its male protagonist — Barrymore as a hammy actor-manager-producer Oscar Jaffe, enthralled by Lombard as a former lingerie model named Mildred Plotka, who is elevated to leading lady of the producer’s latest play.
Much of the action takes place aboard the Twentieth Century Limited, the express train running from Chicago to New York. And, fortunately, the movie is an example of how delightfully spicy Hollywood could be in its pre-code days, before Motion Picture Code guidelines took full hold in mid-1934, just after Twentieth Century was released.
Take a look below at Lombard in full flower. We think you get the picture.
The movie is a show-busy screwball comedy in spades full of snappy dialogue, a confused hero, a spacey heroine, multiple romantic plot turns and garnishes of slapstick.
Although Lombard’s career was reasonably well established (she had been in pictures since 1921), she was not the first choice for the female lead Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn had considered several other actresses — including Gloria Swanson, Kay Francis, Tallulah Bankhead, and Joan Crawford — before acceding to Hawk’s request that Lombard get the role. She was borrowed from Paramount Pictures for the part.
By the time he costarred in Twentieth Century, Barrymore’s career had more or less fulfilled a stereotype of a genius actor dreadfully sapped by Hollywood’s malicious willingness to pay for all his booze and by his efforts to justify the tag of the screen’s great lover, writes British critic David Thomson.
Luckily one masterpiece illustrates the helpless pursuit of himself: ‘Twentieth Century.’…He is a ham, but a skeptic, incredulous of romance yet hopelessly enthralled by it.
‘Twentieth Century is now considered the vehicle for Barrymore’s best screen performance, and the movie turbo-charged Lombard’s career, making her perhaps the premiere comedienne of her time.
Although the film had an underwhelming performance at the box office when it was initially released, it has since garnered all sorts of official kudos including a citation that it is culturally, historically or aesthetically significant by the U.S. Library of Congress.
Never mind. Twentieth Century is also great fun. Take another look.