Twentieth Century (1934)

Erich Kuersten

Twentieth Century reveals the self-consciousness of theater, its falseness and its glory.

Twentieth Century

Director: Howard Hawks
Cast: John Barrymore, Carole Lombard
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Columbia
First date: 1934
US DVD Release Date: 2005-02-22
Amazon affiliate

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.





'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?


Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.


IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.


Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.


NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.


PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.


Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".


Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.


The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.