Long considered a screwball classic and anxiously awaited on DVD, Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century features a Ben Hecht-Charles McArthur script, adapted from Charles Millholand’s play, Napoleon of Broadway. The result is a deft comedy about a Broadway impresario hurtling ever forward into the void, a blend of the tragic and the tough perfectly embodied by John Barrymore.
The actor played romantic leads in silent films (he was known as the “Great Profile”), but with the coming of sound, he was “washed up,” an alcoholic. By no coincidence, his few great sound roles rehearse this story. He’s remembered as a penniless count in Grand Hotel (1932), a suicidal alcoholic actor in Dinner at Eight (1933). But as Oscar Jaffe in Twentieth Century (1934), he found transcendence. Imagine an alternative ending for Sunset Boulevard (1950), wherein Norma Desmond convinces DeMille to make Salome, bending reality to accommodate her grandiose self-image.
Twentieth Century begins with Oscar picking a nobody named Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard) out of his chorus to mold into his next big star, Lily Garland. Though his manager Walter (Oliver Webb) and backer Max (Charles Lane) think she’s terrible, Oscar insists and Lily is a sensation. She goes to Hollywood and he embarks on a string of failures with a less charismatic understudy. Closing his production of Joan of Arc early, he sneaks out of Chicago on the Twentieth Century Ltd. As luck would have it, Lily is on the same train, headed back to New York to do a play with Max. Oscar sees his chance to get out of debt by signing his former protégé to an exclusive contract. The trouble is, she hates him and is accompanied by a jealous college boy lover George (Ralph Forbes).
The film hits its stride in this final third, set on the train. Barrymore’s energy is so over the top and infectious, it’s as if he’s channeling the spirits of every Broadway has-been, manipulative but self-aware. Trying to convince Lily to play Mary Magdalene in the Passion Play, he re-enacts scenes, playing all roles himself, including a passing camel. Faced with this onslaught, Lily can’t help but melt, and we realize that this is what she wants, to be cajoled into art as opposed to mere stardom. She finds a self-reflection in the ambitious producer, observing, “The trouble with us, Oscar, is we’re not people.” Such observations are the pauses in a carefully calibrated stretch of train-bound zaniness, with everyone pretending to be other people, getting drunk and changing sides, amid the din. It’s cacophony, until Barrymore suddenly starts to surf it, making it all cohere below him like a marvelous wave.
The release of the bare-bones DVD reminds us that, for all its fame as a classic, Twentieth Century is often shrill, and shaped by with references that were topical in 1934. Lily says, “He can’t do this to me; I’m no Trilby!”, meaning the model turned singer in Svengali. Or again, as Oscar observes of George’s sullen departure, “What an exit! Not a word, he merely storms out, like the Reverend Henry Montague in Rain,” that is, a popular Somerset Maugham and also 1932 film starring Joan Crawford.
Another prevalent theme of the moment was the Depression: here as elsewhere, once proud men stoop to whatever it takes to keep food in their mouths. As a former box office titan, Barrymore wasn’t just facing irrelevance, but a painful death by alcoholism as well (he would die in 1942). This is not merely a story of lovers dueling it out on a train. Twentieth Century reveals as well the self-consciousness of theater, its falseness and its glory. It’s about finding the triumph in surrender. Above all, it is about Barrymore, here still vital and enchanting, even as he hurtles forward toward the grave with the speed of a cross-country train.