Sunday, February 1, 2015

Twentieth Century

Twentieth Century is a frenetic screwball comedy directed by Howard Hawks in 1934.  The film is noteworthy for its two leads -- Carole Lombard as the rebellious Galatea to John Barrymore's Pygmalion.  Barrymore plays a Broadway director, Oscar Jaffe, who has elevated a lingerie model, Lombard's character (Mildred Plotna renamed as "Lily Garland") into fame and fortune as a leading lady on the Great White Way.  Inevitably, the actress clashes with her tyrannical benefactor and departs to Hollywood where she becomes a famous movie star.  Jaffe grooms another girl to serve as his theatrical muse, but the magic is missing -- his spectacular shows fail and the director goes on the lam to avoid creditors.  On "The Twentieth Century," an express train running from Chicago to New York, Jaffe encounters Lily Garland and contrives a scheme to persuade her to sign a contract to return to the theater under his direction.  The last two-thirds of the picture, involving a series of farcical events on the train, follow closely the movie's Broadway source material, and are the most effective (and funniest) parts of the story -- Barrymore's Jaffe is a megalomaniac and he rants in purplish, pseudo-Elizabethan blank verse and Lombard's Lily Garland, alternately swooning and engaging in fisticuffs with her former lover, is more than his match.  She has come onto the train with a young, beefy swain -- but he is quickly abandoned in the titanic battle of the sexes orchestrated by the insanely egotistical director and his spectacularly vain leading lady.  This is a pre-Code film, absolutely cynical and callous about sex and romance -- we are given to understand that Jaffe's leading ladies are expected to sleep with him in tribute to his greatness although the man is a sadistic bully (he teaches Lombard to scream properly by jabbing her in the derriere with a straight pin; she, then, keeps the pin as a fetish, enshrined in a kind of reliquary.)  Lombard plays a lengthy scene in a sheer silk blouse that demonstrates with complete clarity that she is not wearing a brassiere -- the images leave almost nothing to the imagination.  The film is not particularly funny, although it is amusing.  Barrymore is not well known to modern audiences but he is a startling apparition, the embodiment of the great actor as enfant terrible, a sacred beast of a species that once trod the stage around the time of the Great War.  Barrymore's eyes are huge and expressive, disproportionate to his face, and he has the speaking voice of a great nineteenth century orator -- his hair is disheveled in this film, a great shaggy mop that denotes genius, and his signature effect is his ability to switch on and off his grandiose and melodramatic hysteria at a moment's notice.  One instant, he will be raging in torrents of brilliantly sculpted words; a moment later, he will be pragmatically assessing a comely female assistant's rump or conspiring to defeat his creditors.  The remarkable aspect of the film is that Carole Lombard's Lily Garland is conceived exactly as a creature of Jaffe's genius -- she is his creation and she mirrors his excessive and grandiose volubility, his manipulative threats and wheedling, as well as his ecstatic transports into the world of the spirit.  When Lombard and Barrymore are together on-screen, their frenzies mirror one another and the effect is almost surrealistic -- male and female versions of the same prima donna.  It has always been true that the "Great Artist" as conceived by publicity is, at least, half con-man and  charlatan and "The Twentieth Century" exploits this point.  The funniest moment of the film is when Barrymore, persuading himself that he will mount a Broadway version of the Oberammagau Passion Play and cast Lily Garland as Mary Magdalene ("you shall be clad entirely in emeralds from head to foot, and nothing else") starts to play all parts, including a ruminant camel.  (I saw this film on TCM's "The Essentials" hosted by Robert Osborne and Drew Barrymore; it is remarkable to see the similarity between Drew Barrymore's classically beautiful features and the famous face of her grandfather.)

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