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 much 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.