Thursday, November 21, 2013

FI: Twentieth Century

Twentieth Century
US, 1934
Directed by Howard Hawks

When I wrote last week's regular TCM Tuesday post, I had not seen any of the week's screwball movies. Though I couldn't speak from experience, I said I would begin with Twentieth Century, Howard Hawks's fast-paced comedy-of-egos set in the over-the-top world of the theater—and, thanks to WatchTCM, I was able to do just that. The film shows us the evolution of Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard), a lingerie model who theatrical impresario Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) insists is going to be the next big thing on Broadway. Against the advice of his confidants, fussbudget accountant Oliver (Walter Connolly) and affable tippler Owen (Roscoe Karns), Jaffe brutally teaches the hopeless-seeming Mildred the ropes, rechristening her "Lily Garland" and making her a huge star—and his paramour—in the process. But his histrionic, jealous, over-protective ways drive Lily away, and her departure and subsequent success in Hollywood ruin his creative powers.

From there, the majority of the film takes place on the 20th Century Limited train from Chicago to New York, as Jaffe attempts to flee a flop's financial disaster while, unbeknownst to him, Lily is on board as well. Soon, the aging showman employs every trick he can think of in an attempt to reunite with his protégée and salvage his career. Confining the lead characters' egos within the cramped quarters of a train's compartments and corridors raises the film's energy to farcical levels. Screenwriters Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht (with uncredited contributions from Preston Sturges and Gene Fowler) pack the script with quick dialog and lots of dramatic irony that allows the audience to see a joke's impact just before it hits. The train set also lends itself to physical comedy, eavesdropping, and even a chase of sorts involving a funny little escaped mental patient (Etienne Girardot) with a penchant for placing stickers on anything and everything.

Though I appreciate the film's place in screwball comedy history, I found myself liking the film less than I'd hoped. Some of this comes from its leads' broad characterizations and overuse of theater clichés. Their performances as hammy actors haven't aged well, and having them both be unpleasant egomaniacs—one born that way, the other driven to it—makes it hard to have a rooting interest, even if Lily is a slightly more sympathetic monster. The film attempts to redeem its lead characters' bad behavior by appealing to the mystery of the "creative process" and capital-A Art, and the resulting jokes will feel fresh for anyone who has been involved in theater. Their bigness almost seems to be a remnant from the script's origins as a play (though neither of the film's leads were in it then) and contrasts with the subtler work done by Connolly and Karns, with Karns's dry-witted sot working as the prime scene-stealer. Still, the importance of Twentieth Century can't be denied, as this is really the film that made Lombard's name in comedy, opening the door for her career as the queen of screwball films.

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