Even with its way too abrupt finish, Twentieth Century is rare delight. Would it be more successful if the ending hadn’t wasted Carole Lombard? Yes, but also because it would’ve given lead John Barrymore more Lombard to act opposite and Barrymore’s best opposite Lombard. He’s amazing the whole time, but he’s best working with her. He aggravates him in just the right way. And, after time, she aggravates him in just the right way, which certainly hints at an amazing finish.
Sadly, no. Screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur kind of choke on it, though no doubt some of the fault lies with director (and producer) Hawks.
Anyway. Done with the negative verbiage. On to the reverse.
The film opens with a stage production doing a rehearsal; it’s model Lombard’s first attempt at acting. The director, Charles Lane, and the theatre accountant, Walter Connolly, don’t think much of her. They think boss and Broadway wunderkind Barrymore just hired her because of her looks. Just before Barrymore arrives on stage to take over the film introduces Roscoe Karns as Barrymore’s drunkard newspaper stooge, who’s there to profile Lombard. For about ten minutes, it’s just Barrymore going nuts directing Lombard through the rehearsal. He’s mean (though not cruel), manipulative, rude, and utterly hilarious. Barrymore gnaws at the scene, practically snapping at the air over Lombard’s shoulders. The scene starts with them apart, ends with them intwined, Hawks and editor Gene Havlick really focusing on how the two actors pace off the other. The air is thick with chemistry.
Even if Lombard doesn’t quite realize it yet.
Because Barrymore’s not just interested in creating a successful contract player in Lombard, he’s looking for love. The “seduction” scene is where Barrymore goes from being a hilarious tyrant to a personable, hilarious tyrant. The film has three time frames. The first opens the film; Lombard and Barrymore getting together, realizing greater success because of their collaborations. Then three years later when things have hit the skids. Then another three years later, post-skids, with one far more successful than the other. That last part is the majority of the film. It’s also where the title comes in—they’re on the 20th Century Limited, on the way from Chicago to New York. The first two phases have a lot of Lombard and Barrymore together. There’s some more character establishing with the supporting cast, Connolly and Karns in particular, as they’re going to be very important in the third phase, but it’s all about Lombard and Barrymore. Second phase is mostly more about Lombard. It’s where she’s got to show all the changes in her character over the last three years; what being around Barrymore will do to an intimate partner as well as creative partner. It’s where Lombard gets to let loose almost as much as Barrymore.
Whenever the film’s Lombard or Barrymore, it’s that rare delight. Barrymore manages to get more eccentric by the third phase, set almost entirely on train, while Lombard finally gets to match him. Much of the film is spent either laughing or grinning while preparing to laugh again. Hecht and MacArthur’s script does a fantastic job building up jokes, particularly in the third section, particularly with troublesome train passenger Etienne Girardot. Girardot is a great C plot, which ties into the A plot, but also provides some real texture to the train. He gives the supporting cast something to focus on, giving them their own story arcs. The film is always bustling, as sometimes Lombard and Barrymore need to take a break. They’re both very busy; in character and performance.
Connolly and Karns get a bunch more to do in the third phase, as they’re trying to save Barrymore from himself, which means intruding on Lombard, who’s got her own things going on with fresh beau and stuffed shirt Ralph Forbes. At some point in the second half, it almost feels like Connolly and Karns’s movie. It doesn’t last for long, as they have to involve Barrymore in their activities, but then it becomes the Barrymore, Connolly, and Karns show. Lombard gets downgraded.
Just as the film finally starts remedying Lombard’s reduced station and bringing her back up, giving her some great scenes with Barrymore, the movie stops. Maybe Hecht and MacArthur ran out of ideas to give Barrymore and Lombard something to riff on, but the film needs just a little more. Five minutes maximum. It’s not like Lombard or Barrymore give any signs of slowing, even as Connolly and Karns are literally passing out by this time.
But it’s a magnificent ride to that abrupt finish. And it works, it just doesn’t transcend.
Good editing from Havlick, good photography from Joseph H. August, excellent direction from Hawks. Barrymore and Lombard are wondrous. Twentieth Century is awesome.
Produced and directed by Howard Hawks; screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, based on a play by Charles Bruce Millholland; director of photography, Joseph H. August; edited by Gene Havlick; released by Columbia Pictures.
Starring John Barrymore (Oscar Jaffe), Carole Lombard (Mildred Plotka), Walter Connolly (Oliver Webb), Roscoe Karns (Owen O’Malley), Ralph Forbes (George Smith), Charles Lane (Max Jacobs), and Etienne Girardot (Matthew J. Clark).