1934 was a great film for screwball comedy. It Happened One Night always ends up crowned as the first and the quintessential screwball, the film that moulded all future films of the same genre. While I don’t contest its screwball value, I feel it’s another film that deserves that accolade: Twentieth Century. It not only established Carole Lombard as the queen of screwball, but it also showed why John Barrymore was once considered one of the best actors of his generation.
Carole Lombard plays former lingerie model and aspiring actress Mildred Plotka, who becomes the muse of unhinged theatre producer Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) and has her name changed to Lily Garland. It is a screaming duet, where both main characters hurl elaborate and sophisticated insults at each other until reconciliation is imminent. The relationship could be seen as a toxic one to a modern audience, if it weren’t for the ridiculous and cartoonish way in which the characters and situations are played. Howard Hawks’ pitch to John Barrymore for the role was: “It’s the story of the biggest ham on earth and you’re the biggest ham I know.” Barrymore signed immediately.
While it’s true that John Barrymore’s status as one of the greatest actors in history was attained mainly on stage, his over the top style of acting, which alternates with a very subtle and tempered rage, fits perfectly with the pace of the screwball genre. Directed by the great Howard Hawks, Twentieth Century is an excellent cocktail of scintillating dialogue (Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur), brilliant energy, shouting matches, ridiculous situations and a lot of hammy acting.
Harvey G Cohen, in his book Who’s in the Money? notes:
“The dialogue is not only delivered at a rapid pace, but the characters overlap the end of one speech with the beginning of the next, appearing to interrupt each other as in an ad-libbed encounter. […] The driving ambition and deviousness visible in John Barrymore’s verbally florid portrayal of stage ‘genius’ Oscar Jaffe give the proceedings a continuing air of barely controlled dementia, with his shrieks of hyperbolae and invectives matched and sometimes bested by Carole Lombard’s near hysterical and sharp-tongued retorts – in the role of temperamental star Lily Garland, an unwilling and often frantic Trilby to his megalomaniacal, Manhattan Svengali.”
In a comedy such as Twentieth Century, the level of agency, eccentricity and downright insanity is always on an even keel between Lily Garland (formerly known as Mildred Plotka) and her Svengali type Oscar Jaffe. Despite bowing down to his stronger will (or being willingly taken in by his machinations), Lily shows great agency throughout, succeeding in making a name for herself without Oscar Jaffe’s support.
Moreover, it is he who needs her help when his theatre business is in trouble. Lily is both his torment, addiction and saviour. Their screwball dynamic represents what gives them energy. They both understand that they are happiest when they fight and bicker with each other, their love for each other being intertwined with the love for the theatre, the latter winning in the end.
Twentieth Century remains one of the zanniest screwball comedies that ever zaned. John Barrymore’s hammy acting is turned to 11, revealing to the audience a whimsical figure not far off his true self. Carole Lombard manages to not only hold her own against the insanity of Barrymore’s performance, but succeeds in occasionally topping his hamminess. They both have a lot of fun in creating a memorable film that can be considered one of the best of both their careers. It is a not-to-be-missed caricature on the passionate lives of theatre folk, delivered with Hawks’ usual dizzying speed and humour.