If there weren’t already enough reasons to acclaim and adore Howard, then add (arguably) inventing the screwball comedy to that list. Adapted by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur from their own play, ‘Twentieth Century’ was – along with the more comedically and awards-ingly successful ‘It Happened One Night’ (Frank Capra, 1934) – two of the earliest pitches at the screwball genre.
John Barrymore is Oscar Jaffe, an all-controlling, auteur theatre director. His new muse is Lily Garland (Carole Lombard), an underwear-model-turned-actress with minimal talent: “The more you direct her, the worse she gets”. But Jaffe sees potential in her, and develops her ability personally. The film then charts their theatrical, and relationship, successes and failures.
It’s a relationship that, to a large extent, is built on trading barbs with one another. “She loves me. I can tell it through the screaming.” “He won’t kill himself. It’ll please too many people.” One of the archetypal constituents of screwball comedy is present right from its earliest incarnation – the deadpan putdown.
Another screwball archetype can be seen in the collection of absurd characters at hand. A collection that includes the mandatory escapee from a local asylum. A collection that, during the second half of the action, end up stuck on the same train – the eponymous ‘Twentieth Century’ – where the action builds to head.
A third screwball element is also at play: risqué material. Although the film came just after the implementation of the Hays Code, it is still closer to the edge than the films that would follow in the years to come. It is no accident that in one scene where Lily is getting changed behind a dresser, Hawks places a mirror behind her to reveal her fully naked back. While the audience actually sees very little (hence it got past the censors), it feels like there is more skin on show here than in the next twenty-five years of film.
Yet despite all these screwball components, it is notable that the film is not an out-and-out comedy. Beyond the personal jibes mentioned above, there are only a handful of laughs in the film. What actually holds the film together most of the time is a reliance on an entertaining story with likable characters.
Carole Lombard is excellent. Barrymore is also very good, if guilty of going over-the-top many times in his portrayal. This is often very enjoyable – using a pot of paint to take out his anger on posters of Lily is a high point. At times though, his shrieking and shouting can become slightly repetitive and irritating.
For the most part though, ‘Twentieth Century’ is a lively and enjoyable piece, and important in terms of what it help kick off. And if ‘Twentieth Century’ set the wheels in motion for screwball comedies, then it was Hawks himself who perfected the genre with ‘Bringing Up Baby’ (1938).