Classic Hollywood screwball comedies were the perfectly realized distillation of a motion picture industry in transition. They were born from a still-nascent sound cinema, where witty banter gushed forth fast and furious, and they rebelled against a fledging censorship system, before and after a puritanical code was enforced in full. Tonally light and often utterly ridiculous, they were also a welcome release from Depression-era hardship, frequently providing affluent, slapdash frivolity in an age overwhelmed by profound sociopolitical change. But most of all, they were funny, and more than that, befitting their sub-genre moniker, they were screwy. And screwball comedies don’t get much funnier, or screwier, than Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century.
Inspired by an unproduced play, “Napoleon of Broadway,” written by Charles Bruce Millholland (based on his own theatrical experience), Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur took that fundamental foundation and wrote their smash 1932 stage show Twentieth Century, which ran for more than 150 performances. A year or so later (after uncredited work by no less than Preston Sturges), Hecht and MacArthur refashioned the material into a feature film. Situating their plot in a dramaturgical milieu commonly seen in big-screen musicals, another genre that flourished during the period, the two begin their backstage chronicle by focusing on the pompous, egoistical impresario, Oscar Jaffe, played with something considerably more than exuberance by John Barrymore. Rehearsing for what is unmistakably an Oscar Jaffe production, as posters declare in abundance, the producer’s latest discovery struggles to find her footing — literally. Poor Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard) is a “Hoboken Cinderella,” a former underwear model who is, make no mistake, “no Bernhardt.” Yet she is bright-eyed, eager and radiant, and her ambition pushes past Oscar’s authoritative reign… and a pin strategically pushed somewhere down below gets the desired result. Released in May of 1934, just two months before the crackdown establishment of the Production Code Administration (which would be regularly and delightfully subverted anyway), Twentieth Century was met with a handful of objections, all of which are unquestionably tame by today’s standards, as well as those set by other risqué pre-code classics. One was this indelicate prick, with the pun and intimation absolutely intended.
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Verbose and vainglorious, Oscar’s biggest sin is perhaps his quest for control, barking directions and changing Mildred’s name to the more palatable “Lily Garland” (whether anyone else knows about it or not). As one who is often in charge, his obsession with order is understandable, but in the world of the screwball comedy — just ask David Huxley in Bringing Up Baby (1938), or Hildegard Johnson in His Girl Friday (1940), both later Hawks offerings — the best laid plans, devised with the best of intentions, will inevitably end up like Oscar’s chalky stage directions: messy, irrational and chaotic. That’s exactly what happens in Twentieth Century, when, three years down the road, Oscar and Mildred remain engaged in an increasingly combative collaboration and equally combustible relationship. Eventually compounded by her escalating star stature and his jealousy, the two split and go their separate ways: Mildred to — shudder — Hollywood, where she becomes an instant star, and Oscar back to Broadway, where a string of flops do little to appease his resentment, or his desperation. Reuniting by chance aboard the 20th Century Limited, travelling from Chicago to New York City, the two are unwittingly embroiled in a series of scams and scenarios that all serve the purpose of bringing this dynamically indignant duo back together. Hecht and MacArthur take an indirect route to be sure, exploiting the resistant theatrics of Oscar and Mildred as they engage in breathless exchanges and one physical and/or verbal outburst after another. Expanding the canvas of craziness, initially extraneous yet acquiring a precise place in the grand narrative puzzle (a testament to the conceptual unity of Hecht and MacArthur), there is also the appearance of Mathew J. Clark, played by Etienne Girardot, who had actually appeared in the original Broadway production. A pint-sized doomster, recently escaped from a mental institution, Clark has a penchant for religious stickers and a habit of cutting bad checks, and it is he who inadvertently reunites the resplendent ingenue with her boisterous Svengali (Clark is also the catalyst for another code objection: The Passion Play being used for comedic effect).
Molding the madness, and keeping it cohesive and relentlessly entertaining, Hawks was nevertheless an afterthought to direct Twentieth Century. While he had several solid features to his name, including the groundbreaking gangster movie Scarface (1932), another film flouting the conventional norms of judicious Hollywood (also co-written by Hecht), Hawks had not proven himself in the realm of comedy. This opposed to someone like early choice Lewis Milestone, for instance, who was already an Oscar winner and had directed the Hecht-MacArthur farce The Front Page (1931). In light of later Hawks features like Ball of Fire (1941), I Was a Male War Bride (1949) and Monkey Business (1952), to say nothing of Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday noted above, the reticence is hard to fathom. But it all worked out in any event, and with Twentieth Century, one sees so much of what distinguished Hawks’ consummate refinement, in his comedic work and elsewhere (see 1946’s The Big Sleep or 1959’s Rio Bravo for two especially evident dramatic parallels). There is not only a masterful balancing of pace and tenor, particularly with the frenetic interactions that come to the brink of unchecked mayhem, but there is also a vigilant staging of characters, even when crammed in settings of overheated emotions and physical constriction. As always, Hawks is also adept at managing a team, in this case Jaffe’s loyally thankless party of associates, and Mildred certainly ranks among the director’s many renowned female characters: strong, independent and keen to equal or surpass her male counterparts.
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Mildred is unique, however, because she is played by Carole Lombard. While Barrymore’s star was declining, a result of his self-destructive lifestyle, and while Hawks hoped to revive the idol’s career by taking him someplace he had never been before — categorically, unambiguously and hilariously over the top — the filmmaker also saw untapped potential in 25-year-old Lombard. This former Mack Sennett bathing beauty (who also happened to be Hawks’ second cousin) had starred in numerous shorts and several lackluster features, most of them only of interest because of her presence, so it took some convincing to get Columbia head Harry Cohn on board (he had preferred everyone from Eugenie Leontovich, who played the role on Broadway, to Gloria Swanson, Miriam Hopkins and Joan Crawford). What Hawks knew, and what had hitherto been wanting on screen, was that Lombard’s genuine personality was ideally suited to a comedy like this. She, like the form itself, was uninhibited, energetic and charming. But Lombard was also something else. Whether adorned in silk lingerie or a dazzling evening gown, she could exude effortless sexuality, which often paired well with her high-spirited gesticulations and animated appeal. Mildred has affectations of her own — the tempestuous blonde diva with electric frazzled hair is prone to ear-piercing eruptions, breakneck hysterics and wildly oscillating emotions — but Lombard imbues in even this volcanic personality a beautiful softness and a wistful, sensitive deportment.
Ultimately — and this is again where Hawks’ stamp is so apparent — Twentieth Century is about a partnership. As one half of this disparate, dependent duo, little more on the surface than archetypal theatrical types, Barrymore’s finely-tuned ham performance is fitting and capable, if not all that surprising. On the other hand, this vision of Lombard let loose was something altogether new. Collectively, their diverse backgrounds met happily in this middle ground, surveyed and quarried by Hawks’ sharpened foresight. Erratic and masochistic, Oscar and Mildred treat life like a play, with self-conscious actions, pronounced exits and entrances, and an overwhelming flair for the dramatic. But they are destined and doomed to each other; in classic screwball style, and for the benefit of all involved, including the audience, these oppositional forces fitfully fuse into a complimentary package. As one character dryly observes, “In some Humpty Dumpty way, that was true love.” Polishing the diamond that is his protegee, Oscar says Mildred embodies “fire, passion, everything.” And when it comes to Carole Lombard, she’s all of that and more. Look no further than Twentieth Century.
Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.