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Twentieth Century

Twentieth Century(1934)

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Twentieth Century and It Happened One Night aren't the only movies that might be called the first screwball comedies. But those 1934 Columbia Pictures releases are certainly the two most responsible for bringing the raucous strain of romantic comedy into vogue. While Frank Capra's It Happened One Night swept that year's Oscars® and has remained iconic, Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century was not even among that year's twelve Best Picture nominees and is not nearly so well-known today (despite inspiring the 1978 Broadway musical On the Twentieth Century). Although there's no sense in debating which movie is better - they're both genuine classics; Twentieth Century has some catching up to do, and hopefully the movie's new DVD release will help more people discover this influential comedy.

But being influential isn't half as important as being funny, colorful and stylish, and Twentieth Century is all of those things. Featuring outsized performances from John Barrymore and Carole Lombard as, respectively, a bombastic Broadway producer and the actress-lover who bolts from his grip after he turns her into a star, Twentieth Century exudes the most important philosophy of the screwball comedy: that the romantic leads could also be the comic relief. Not only could they knock each other down and put each other down, it was recommended. What better way to show the two lovers communicated in their own special way, apart from the rest of the world?

The screwball "battle of the sexes" really is a battle in Twentieth Century. Barrymore's imperious impresario Oscar Jaffe plucks lingerie model Mildred Plotka (Lombard) from obscurity, rechristening her Lily Garland and bringing out the talent that only he sees in her. The opening rehearsal sequence sets the tone for their relationship, with Jaffe overwhelming Lily by berating her and prodding her with a sharp pin in order to draw her emotions during the play's dramatic apex. When the movie soon cuts to three years later, Lily is a star of a series of Jaffe hits, but she's still being overwhelmed by him. He's not just her boss, he's also her possessive lover. "That's not love, it's pure tyranny!" she carps, before she reacts to Jaffe's latest ploy to gain sympathy by calling him a "cheap ham" (Lily dishes it out as well takes it, and this is Lombard's breakthrough role). When she finds out Jaffe has had a private eye (Edgar Kennedy) tapping her phone calls, she takes the first train to Hollywood and a successful career in pictures. As gesticulating, overdramatic Jaffe might say, "From now on, I close the iron door on you!" - his favorite arm-swinging declaration when firing his underlings, before inevitably rehiring them minutes later in a moment of need.

And Jaffe's moments of need deepen. Another jump in time reveals Lily to be a Hollywood star and Jaffe to be slumping badly. His new protegee is a bust, and his debt-laden latest production just barely escapes sheriff's warrants in Chicago, with Jaffe having to don a southern gentleman disguise to get past a deputy and onto a departing train. The movie is named for the once-famous Chicago-New York train the Twentieth Century Limited where, for the second half of the movie, Jaffe tries to con Lily into signing with him for a typically over-the-top production of The Passion Play (Barrymore's frantic portrayal of the production's action, including his imitation of the 100 camels Jaffe wants onstage, is not one you'll soon forget). Lily has unwittingly made the mistake of getting on the same train, and wants no part of the production. But Jaffe doesn't care what Lily wants.

Like a lot of great comedies, Twentieth Century builds its comedy patiently and steadily. It's in full swing by the time it reaches the train, and only accelerates more. There, a nutcase with a fondness for pasting religious stickers all over the train and passing bad checks (played by Etienne Girardot) becomes the instigator behind many of the laughs. But it's the central love-hate romance between Jaffe and Lily that pulses Twentieth Century. Adapting their own stage play, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur scripted the movie for director Hawks, years before Hawks would take their rough-and-tumble newspaper comedy The Front Page, change the gender of one of the leads and turn it into His Girl Friday, the fastest-paced of all the screwball romantic comedies (and three years before Hecht would give Lombard another signature role in Nothing Sacred). Twentieth Century is also a hint of the screwball heyday to come in its effective use of a raft of choice character actors, including Walter Connolly and Roscoe Karns as Jaffe's long-suffering right-hand men (coincidentally, the two are also in It Happened One Night), Charles Levison (a/k/a Charles Lane), the aforementioned Kennedy and Fred "Snowflake" Toones.

Unfortunately, Twentieth Century comes to us from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, which has thus far shown little commitment to imaginatively repackaging its back catalog of movies for DVD. While it's easy to understand releasing a no-frills disc for a run-of-the-mill movie, for something as special as Twentieth Century that just seems like bad business.

For more information about Twentieth Century, visit Sony Pictures. To order Twentieth Century, go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Sherman