Lithographs

Fun revisiting TWENTIETH CENTURY, even though in certain respects the film is never quite as good as I want it to be. But even its weaknesses are interesting and revealing and sometimes enjoyable.

I’ve never seen the play but I’m guessing that Howard Hawks his screenwriters (Hecht & McArthur + Gene Fowler: Preston Sturges was fired after four days, but seems to have retained the idea of Edgar Kennedy as a private eye for UNFAITHFULLY YOURS) have both gutted and exploded it. The parts on the train are the play, truncated. So there’s an extensive series of preceding scenes, “opening out” the action and roughing in the prehistory of the characters before the central situ (broke theatre impresario woos the star he created on train bound for NYC). This effectively destroys the play’s taut structure, but Hawks never cared a lick for plot, and the additions are so entertaining it just about gets away with it.

The rewrite has the effect of turning the story into HIS GIRL FRIDAY avant la lettre, with the crazy boss trying to win back his star pupil — the comedy in both cases both depends upon and is endangered by the fact that Oscar Jaffe/Walter Burns (or John Barrymore/Cary Grant) is a deplorable megalomaniac and one should in no way root for his success. The anti-hero’s awfulness provides the laughs and undercuts the drama, but mustn’t be allowed to keep us from investing a little bit of interest — but it’s curiosity about what devilry he’ll attempt next, rather than any sense of “rooting for him.”

Barrymore, in the early scenes, gets to spoof himself pretty thoroughly, with Hawks throwing in a lot of the in-jokes he was intermittently addicted to: references to Svengali and whatnot. Most of Barrymore’s famous roles get lampooned, and the actor heroically throws in a lifetime’s worth of baroque stage business, pushing the dramaturgy just far enough to highlight its artifice and make it absurd. It’s a parody of hamminess that’s often very nuanced and always exquisitely controlled.

As his rival, Lombard is great in the early scenes where she has our sympathy, and perhaps a little too shrill once we get to the play and she has to transform into a diva. Some of the screaming and wailing gets a bit much, and her lightning shifts of phony emotion don’t have as clear a throughline as Barrymore’s. But her footwork is terrific here –

If the relationship prefigures HIS GIRL FRIDAY for Hawks, it rehearses TO BE OR NOT TO BE for Lombard, where she gets to play a drama queen who’s NOT a hysteric. Indeed, it’s hard to believe Lubitsch wasn’t in some way influenced by Hawks here — John Barrymore would have made a lot more obvious sense as a Shakespearean ham than Jack Benny, even if the initials are the same. Of course Lubitsch’s instincts were perfect: Barrymore is perfect casting as a director so he can mock actors, and Benny is superb because casting him as Poland’s leading tragedian is inherently funny.

If Barrymore and Lombard are not quite perfectly matched for ability at farce, her amazing beauty gives her an edge, and then there’s everybody else: Roscoe Karns, Walter Connolly (his dyspepsia in scene one turning to acute angina by film’s end) and Charles Lane, back when he was Charles Levison, playing a character who’s changed from Max Mandelbaum to Max Jacobson “for some mysterious reason.” Barrymore’s character harps on the guy’s Jewish origins in a way no comedy character would be allowed to today, and it’s a little shocking but of course entirely in keeping for the monster that is Oscar Jaffe.

If all the front-loading of back-story in the form of prologue does any harm at all, apart from enforcing a certain shapelessness that’s ┬ámuch to Hawks’ liking, it’s that it creates the necessity for a coda, just to frame the lengthy train sequence. And so we get a not-very-inspired “This is where we came in” type rehash of the opening rehearsal, which is brief, but not quite speedy or funny enough to get itself out of trouble. A movie which crams gigantic amounts of character development into it’s first half and then suggests its characters are fixed, unchanging and unreal “lithographs,” for the remaining running time, does leave a slight dissatisfaction, even though it’s all so brilliantly done and funny. Fortunately, we don’t require perfection.

Check out the Lombard blogathon here.

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14 Responses to “Lithographs”

  1. Excellent! “Twentieth Century” is arguably Lombard’s most pivotal film, as it helped lift her into the top tier of comedic actresses, revamping her cinematic persona. And while it’s no secret she was sought for “His Girl Friday” (by that time, her stature as a star had grown to the point where her salary was too rich for Harry Cohn to afford), I hadn’t really pondered the parallels between the two films aside from the obvious Hawks connection. (While Rosalind Russell was virtually perfect in the film and it’s difficult to imagine anyone other than her in the role, Carole might have been able to pull it off.) One also wonders if Lubitsch would have pursued Barrymore for “To Be Or Not To Be” if drink (which eventually led to his death a few months after Lombard’s) hadn’t deteriorated him and his career to the point of self-parody.

    Again, a wonderfully thought-out entry — one I’m delighted to have as part of “Carole-tennial(+3)!” Thank you.

  2. Hecht and MacArthur had a knack of taking over sucessful properties and turning them into something of their own for further success. The Front Page / His Girl Friday is a rip-off of Maureen Watkins’ Chicago. Twentieth Century is derived from the now ultra-obscure play Napoleon of Broadway by Bruce Millholland. It was a parody of theatrical impressario Jed Harris. Back in the 60′s in New York (at the height of my rat pack moviegoing period) Millholland was a familiar figure at the Museum of Modern Art — attending almost every film screenign you can imagine, he noisily demanded “His” seat of someone dared to sit in it. You can imagine my surprise (and delight) when he turned up in a pivotal role in my favorite unsung comic masterpiece So Fine.

    Lombard is lovely in Twentieth century but outside of To Be or Not To Be the performance that sealed the deal for me was Hitchcock’s Mr & Mrs. Smith.

    It should also be pointed out that Lombard helped Barrymore when he was on his uppers by giving him a pivotal role in the preposterous, but nonetheless delightful True Confession

  3. Off-topic (but not really if you think about it) It’s Tuesday Weld Day

  4. Tuesday on Saturday? Crrazy!

    If my copy of Hands Across the Table weren’t on loan I’d have reviewed that one. And if I had time I’d do To Be Or Not To Be too.

    Barrymore’s drinking interfered with his ability to remember lines, but he could still deliver spectacular performances right to the end. Comedy seems to have been easier for him then, since I guess his tendency to excess was hard to control: his creativity wasn’t diminished, just his ability to rein himself in.

  5. The other really important Lombard is Mitchell Leisen’s masterful Swing High, Swing Low. She’s also partnered with Fred MacMurray in it, but this time it’s a darl romantic drama — and a key influence on New York New York.

  6. Yes, it’s really terrific, and an important neglected movie (the negative was lost and only 16mm elements survive). It prefigures The Lost Weekend as a serious look at alcoholism, and it certainly does anticipate New York, New York as a look at a dysfunctional creative partnership.

  7. According to John Kobler (Barrymore’s biographer), in an effort to get her to loosen up Hawks told Lombard to imagine she had already earned all the money she’d been paid for the film so “you don’t owe a nickel and don’t have to act anymore”. Then he asked her how she’d react in real life to the Barrymore character. “I’d kick the son of a bitch right in the balls”. “OK”, said Hawks. “Do it.”

    I saw Twentieth Century for the first time when it was screened last year at the Edinburgh Filmhouse as part of its Hawks season and have seldom heard an audience there laugh so much.

  8. Christopher Says:

    Cukor aside..Hawks may be my favorite director of women..He turned ‘em into john wayne.

  9. I suspect Hawks may be the original source for the stories on directing Barrymore and Lombard — I never believe his stories unless they’re corroborated, but I always enjoy them. Here, it would seem more likely that Lombard had to be hyped into giving a BIGGER performance than she’d planned, since nothing else in her filmography is quite as loud and frenetic.

    Hawks certainly has some of my favourite classical Hollywood female characters: Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep, Ros Russell… and though he’s often accused of running variations on a theme of his ideal woman, I find a pleasing variety there.

  10. Excellent review. My feelings about this film pretty much tally with yours–it’s never quite as good as I want it to be. It’s odd that Hawks always complained about the over-the-top craziness of Bringing Up Baby, when, to my mind, it’s this film that needs a better balance of sanity vs. madness.

    But God, do I love Barrymore shouting, “Anathema! Child of Satan!” So much to enjoy in this film, in spite of everything.

    And I agree with David. I find the Hawksian women to be pretty distinct from each other. No assembly line females there.

  11. …partly because he insisted on casting very different actresses each time. So only two Lauren Bacall films but five Cary Grants. But anyhow, it worked.

  12. Actually, Hecht & McArthur adapted it for the stage *before* Hawks made his film. According to IBDB, “Twentieth Century” played from December 1932 to May 1933, with George Abbott as its director. One interesting thing, though, is that Lily was originally played by Eugenie Leontovich (later the Dowager opposite Viveca Lindfors in the first New York production of “Anastasia”). Hawks’ claim — which means that it should be taken with several truckloads full of salt — is that *he* was the one who decided that Lily should be played as Jane Average Girl, rather than as a diva, and that the authors told him it worked better that way.

    Certainly better for Lombard, in any case.

  13. She’s at her best in the early scenes.

    Yes, Hecht & McArthur adapted an existing work. first for the stage, then the screen, and it’s their Number 1 plot in action: the quitter who must be lured back. Gunga Din is the same damn movie!

    But I don’t know at what stage the opening scenes were added — it did feel like those were probably cinematic additions, but I could be wrong.

  14. I love John Barrymore asking for “a little scream” … and, of course, “I close the iron door!” has long been a part of my set of Phrases For All Occasions.

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