Twentieth Century (1934)
Release Date: May 11th, 1934 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Howard Hawks Actors: John Barrymore, Carole Lombard, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, Ralph Forbes, Charles Levison, Dale Fuller
new Oscar “OJ” Jaffe (John Barrymore) play, entitled “The Heart of Kentucky,” is in the casting phase, with blonde lingerie model Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard) in the lead. The problem is that she’s terrible. Despite receiving direction by talented stage men Max (Charles Lane) and Oliver (Walter Connolly), and even Jaffe himself, the young Mildred – renamed Lily Garland for marquee appeal – just doesn’t seem cut out for the role. After hours and hours of embarrassment and ceaseless berating, Lily finally breaks down into tears. No one has the right to treat her this way.
“She’s marvelous!” Convinced that she has the talent, which must be pried from her like a rotten tooth, Jaffe relentlessly, tirelessly molds her into a star, resorting to every dirty, slippery tactic to mine a great performance from her. “The diamond was there; I merely supplied a little polish.” And yet, despite the duo finding great success on Broadway over the course of the next three years, it would appear as if Jaffe was actually just trying to secure a new lover. She may have had visible potential as an actress, but Oscar is the master manipulator, from the stage to the bedroom (and a jealous, possessive, controlling, paranoiac).
“I love the theater and the charming people in it!” Although the lovers’ quarrels are meant to be comical, they’re riddled with bitterness and deceit. Jaffe is a horrible person, content with using and abusing everyone within arm’s reach. Ludicrous or brazen, his continual onslaught of verbal affronts rarely involve much beyond deafening yelling. Plus, when his career slides downhill after Lily gains the sense and courage to leave him, Oscar seeks only to blame her – or Max or Oliver, if they’re close enough to insult. A selfish, egomaniacal, pigheaded fool, Jaffe certainly doesn’t deserve to win her back – even though she proves to be just as neurotic and spontaneously ferocious as her counterpart, as if to imply that these flawed individuals deserve one another’s wretchedness.
Even background characters like George Smith (Ralph Forbes), a Hollywood beau; or private eye McGonigle (Edgar Kennedy); or the genuinely crazy propagandist and conman Matthew J. Clark, played by Etienne Girardot (a curious parallel of certified lunacy seeming almost normal in comparison to the frantic leads), are unable to convey anything but outrage. As personas fly off the handle, have fits of hysteria, or simply complain nonstop, the dialogue explodes at a breakneck pace (based on the play “Napoleon of Broadway”). Irritatingly, however, is the monotonic nature of their exchanges; there are no ups and downs, only tirades at the tops of lungs.
But with all the slimy tricks, delusions of grandeur, and high-pitched shouting matches, it’s difficult to appreciate even the moments that demonstrate creative commentary on love and art (such as when Oscar and Lily both believe they’ll be the bigger person in formally seeing the other during a train ride). There’s brief slapstick and a few funny reactions, but the characters are so despicable and heartless (instead of pitiable) that it’s practically impossible to hope for a positive outcome. Of course, if Jaffe and Garland end up together (which they do, in a completely unmanageable way), they’re perfect for each other – as miserable, Machiavellian exploiters.
– Mike Massie