John Barrymore, on the downhill slide of his career, zings through the film as the self-promoting Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe, showing a comic mastery that Hollywood rarely tapped. Carole Lombard, a pretty but largely undistinguished clothes horse of a leading lady, revealed a knockabout facility for physical comedy and a flair for tempestuous characters as Lily Garland, a lingerie model pulled out of the department store runway and transformed into Jaffe's latest discovery. In Jaffe's first rehearsal of his new play, an insufferably hoary southern plantation melodrama, he enters with elegance and dignity, cooing his admiration for the theater and his respect for one and all gathered with paternal warmth, and then works himself up into a lather as a bullying tyrant spewing insulting tirades. The gambit brings out Lily's untapped passions and a star is born. She's Jaffe's discovery, his lover and, in his mind, his property, and his smothering jealousy finally drives her to leave him and try her luck in Hollywood. The result is stardom for Lily and disaster for Jaffe.
"I never thought I would sink so low as to become an actor," Jaffe moans (with typical melodramatic flair) after sneaking out of town under the flowing mustache and southern comfort drawl of a plantation gentleman. In fact he is always playing a part and always working an angle, as Lily well knows when she screams "You cheap ham!" at him after one-too-many of his fake gestures of suicide. She's half right. He's a gloriously overripe grade A ham, whether he's wooing, cajoling, berating, belittling or dismissing the people in his orbit, but he's anything but cheap. Which makes his run of post-Lily Garland flops all the more damaging. When he discovers that Lily is on the same train to New York, you can see his desperation in his exaggerated appearance - his hair stands up in a wild-man shock, his eyes bug out, his voice rises and falls with volcanic excitement as he schemes to win Lily back for a career-resuscitating comeback production.
Twentieth Century had been a Broadway hit for Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, whose earlier stage comedy The Front Page was brought to the screen by Lewis Milestone. The comic collision between an egotistical and flamboyant theater producer (inspired by the real-life Broadway entrepreneurs Morris Gest and David Belasco) and his tempestuous grand dame of a star was developed for actor/director Gregory Ratoff and his wife, Eugenie Leontovich, and the battle of wills took place entirely in the train ride from Chicago to New York. Hawks made substantial changes from the Broadway play, shifting the character of Lily from a theatrical grand dame to Mildred Plotka, a star-struck model transformed into a Broadway success by Oscar Jaffe's scheming Svengali of a producer, and creating a whole new first act to chart the rise and fall of their professional and romantic relationship. With the blessing of Ratoff and the approval of the playwrights, Hawks left for New York and wrote the first draft with Hecht and MacArthur, batting ideas around and dictating their dialogue while fledgling producer Billy Rose (who reportedly was once a world champion in a shorthand competition) took it all down.
With this first draft in hand, Hawks set out to secure John Barrymore, once one of the most celebrated actors of the stage and the silent screen but now slipping into theatrical self-caricature on screen, due in part to his alcoholism. In an interview with Joseph McBride, Hawks described his meeting with Barrymore: "He said, 'Mr. Hawks, just why do you think I would be any good in this picture?' I said, 'It's the story of the greatest ham in the world, and God knows you fit that.' And he said, 'I'll do the picture.' He never even read it."
The daring was in pairing a virtual unknown young actress with a scene-stealing veteran ham, and it was magic. For the newly reworked part of Lily, Columbia studio head Harry Cohn wanted Tallulah Bankhead or Gloria Swanson, who both turned it down. The choice of Carole Lombard was a wild-card suggestion. The former Mack Sennett bathing beauty (and, coincidentally, Hawks' second cousin, a distant relation he had never really known well) had made a number of films but was considered as little more than a lovely but passive leading lady. Hawks cast her not on the strength of her career but the strength of the personality he saw emerge at a party, as she relaxed after a couple of drinks: "she was hilarious and uninhibited and just what the part needed." The trick was getting that uninhibited spirit onto the screen. The legendary story goes that Hawks asked her what she would do if someone in real life treated her as Barrymore's Jaffe does. "I'd kick him in the balls," she said, and Hawks told her to go right ahead. She let loose and this new Carole Lombard went on to become a sexy, funny leading lady, the screwball bombshell of thirties comedy.
Hawks claimed that he made Twentieth Century while on a paid vacation from MGM. Whether or not the story is true (Hawks was certainly a storyteller in every sense of the word and he had reason to paint his triumph in shades of revenge against MGM, where the independent-minded director chafed against the studio's tight production controls), Hawks did complete the film in what seemed like record time. "I got Barrymore and Lombard and we made the picture in three weeks' time," Hawks told McBride, though in fact the production went behind schedule in the final week and ran longer than Hawks remembers. The delay was due to Hawks' unconventional direction and the rehearsals and retakes needed as he drilled his cast to get that rapid-fire dialogue and overlapping delivery. This was the first picture that he tried this experiment and its success can be seen in numerous comedies (Bringing Up Baby , His Girl Friday ) and dramas (The Thing from Another World, 1951) he made after Twentieth Century.
The film was a solid success though not the smash everyone expected, yet its influence on the direction and style of film comedies of the thirties is incalculable. "I don't think John Barrymore ever made a complete idiot out of himself until he did Twentieth Century. They didn't have leading men and women make damn fools of themselves like they did in that picture." They certainly did afterwards. Carole Lombard cemented her comic stardom in My Man Godfrey (1936), playing a sweet but clueless child of wealth who adopts a homeless man as her "protégé," and stars like Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn let their madcap impulses fly free in Hawks' defining screwball classic Bringing Up Baby. You can trace the genealogy of these films, as well as Nothing Sacred (1937), The Awful Truth (1937), Hawks' own His Girl Friday (1940, a battle of the sexes remake of The Front Page, 1931) and the glorious comedies of Preston Sturges, back to Twentieth Century, in spirit and attitude and sheer velocity if not outright inspiration
Producer: Howard Hawks
Director: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur (credited for screenplay but not for play); Charles Bruce Millholland (play "Napoleon of Broadway"); Gene Fowler (screenplay uncredited); Preston Sturges (uncredited)
Cinematography: Joseph August
Film Editing: Gene Havlick
Cast: John Barrymore (Oscar Jaffe), Carole Lombard (Lily Garland), Walter Connolly (Oliver Webb), Roscoe Karns (Owen O'Malley), Ralph Forbes (George Smith), Charles Levison (Max Jacobs), Etienne Girardot (Mathew J. Clark); Dale Fuller (Sadie), Edgar Kennedy (Oscar McGonigle), Billie Seward (Anita)
by Sean Axmaker