TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934) B/W 91m dir: Howard Hawks
w/John Barrymore, Carole Lombard, Roscoe Karns, Walter Connolly, Ralph Forbes, Dale Fuller, Etienne Giradot, Herman Bing, Lee Kohlmar, James Burtis
From The Movie Guide: "Though the film has a large cast, TWENTIETH CENTURY remains essentially a one-man show for John Barrymore, who plays one of the most preposterous and memorable characters to spring from the minds of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Directed with breakneck pace by Howard Hawks (as in his later Hecht-MacArthur adaptation, HIS GIRL FRIDAY ), it's the story of a maniacal Broadway director (Barrymore) who transforms shopgirl Carole Lombard from a talented amateur to a smashing Great White Way success adored by public and press. For three years, Barrymore has been Lombard's lover and her Svengali shepherding her career, controlling her behavior, and directing her plays. They battle regularly, but make up passionately. Now a huge star of the New York stage, Lombard yearns for some peace and respite from the manic Barrymore. One final disagreement does the trick, and Lombard heads for the palm trees of Hollywood and a screen career. Barrymore's fortunes subsequently plummet, causing creditors to dog his heels in Chicago. To escape, he boards the Twentieth Century Limited train in the Windy City, accompanied by his manager, Walter Connolly, and press representative, Roscoe Karns, heading for what they hope will be newfound success in New York. As luck would have it, Lombard and her new fiance, football player Ralph Forbes, are also on the train. Barrymore despises the ruggedly handsome Forbes and doesn't bother to hide his disdain as he moves in on Lombard (who has become as big a star on the screen as she was on the stage), trying to convince her to appear in his latest production. The remainder of the picture is a farcical series of biting verbal exchanges, opening and closing doors, hurled insults, thrown kisses, a madcap procession of several weird characters on board the train, and some of the biggest laughs Barrymore ever received. ... The picture was not a hit when it first came out, perhaps because its satire of flamboyant theater people failed to capture the imagination of moviegoing audiences; later it became the basis for the Broadway musical 'On the Twentieth Century.'"
From Focus on Howard Hawks, edited by Joseph McBride, this extract from Andrew Sarris' "The World of Howard Hawks": "Twentieth Century is one of Hawks's three favorite films, the other two being Dawn Patrol and Scarface. The first of the screwball comedies of the Thirties, it is performed at the frenetic pace which has distinguished all of his later comedies. Released in 1934 with a sophisticated Hecht-MacArthur script, Twentieth Century was a few years ahead of its time, and, as might be expected of a Hawks masterpiece, did not receive the popular and critical acclaim it deserved. Hawks can take the credit not only for John Barrymore's best bravura comedy performance, but also for the film which first established Carole Lombard as the finest comedienne of the Thirties. Although this is a play adaptation, it enables Hawks to exploit two of his favorite devices for cinematic narrative: the odyssey and the enclosure, in this instance combined by the inner and outer aspects of a train --- the Twentieth Century --- speeding across the continent.
"Hawksian comedy is even more bitter than Hawksian adventure as it confronts the disordered world of the twentieth century, and the title here is quite inspired as a key to Hawks's attitudes toward modern life. Exhausted by her frenzied theatrical experiences, the heroine tries to escape into a normal existence, but is thwarted by a series of farcical intrigues which would never have succeeded if she had not been unconsciously drawn to the very insanity she sought to escape. However, unlike other comedy directors of the period such as [George] Cukor, [Leo] McCarey, and [Gregory] La Cava, Hawks never pauses long enough to exploit the inherent pathos and emotional involvement of the situation. Without invoking the sentimentality of the theater except as a last resort, the director in Twentieth Century is simultaneously involved in the lunacy of the stage and yet determined to master it on his own terms. Twentieth Century is notable as the first comedy in which sexually attractive, sophisticated stars indulged in their own slapstick instead of delegating it to their inferiors."