Tuesday 14 October 2008

Twentieth Century (1934)

It's been far too long since I've seen a Carole Lombard film, but Turner Classic Movies, in celebration of the hundredth anniversary of her birth, has made her their Star of the Month. In fact it's been far too long since I've seen a screwball comedy, because it would seem that I've worked through all the easy ones to get and the hard ones to get don't come around too often. This one, hugely regarded wherever and whenever it is regarded, directed by Howard Hawks, starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard, sitting happily in exalted company among the Home Theater Forum's list of the 100 Great Films of the 1930s, made as far back as 1934, is being shown on TCM for the very first time. Go figure.

Barrymore is Oscar Jaffe, a Broadway impresario. He's a wild character, so full of himself that the title of the play on his billboards is almost an afterthought, right under: 'Mr Oscar Jaffe announces a new play. Personally supervised by Mr Jaffe. With a typical Jaffe Cast. To be presented at the Jaffe Theatre.' He knows his stuff though, enough to see the potential in an underwear model called Mildred Plotka. He renames her Lily Garland and turns her into an actress using every method possible: literally chalking her movements onto the stage and getting her to scream by stabbing her in the backside with a pin.

Needless to say Plotka/Garland is Carole Lombard and needless to say she becomes a success as wild as the temperament of her boss. She also knows that he owes plenty of that success to him: on her first successful opening night she's not even sure of herself. 'Was I alright?' she asks him. 'Was I what you wanted?' As he manipulates her into whatever else he wants, she even tells him that 'I'm nothing without you and I never will be.' Of course, Jaffe and Garland rack up success after success, but once a success she becomes as fiery as he is, a prima donna with a gondola for a bed and chinchilla coats with silver linings to flaunt at people. And inevitably she leaves for Hollywood.

Our real story kicks in in Chicago, from which Jaffe is escaping, having produced flop after flop and descended to the depths with Garland's name absent from his billboards. Meanwhile Garland, because however much of a start Jaffe gave her her talent is her own, has become a Hollywood star plastered across the covers of all the film magazines. And they find themselves on the same train, the Twentieth Century of the title, hurtling from Chicago to New York, where Jaffe and his cohorts can do what they can to win her back. Anyone who's ever seen a screwball comedy can imagine roughly what that means.

It is a peach of a film, as short on reality as it blessed with laughter. Screwball comedies aren't supposed to make sense: they're supposed to be things that make us laugh, pure and simple, their zany characters, rapid fire dialogue and frenetic pace not giving the viewers a chance to stop and think about anything, especially real life. Twentieth Century is one of the earliest examples of screwball comedy, though It Happened One Night, released the same year, overshadowed it through the unprecedented feat of winning all four of the main Oscars that year. The pair of them and other screwball comedies to follow, gave people an opportunity to forget, at least for an hour and a half, the Great Depression that surrounded them and which had reached its depths in 1933.

However this one has much more than just laughter, because the performances are fascinating. Carole Lombard in some ways mirrors her character. She'd made a number of films and was progressing up the ranks but this is the film that broke her as a star. She was overwhelmed by being able to work opposite such a legend as John Barrymore and it took threats by director Howard Hawks to fire her before she could engage her real power as an actress. Three years later, when they worked together again in True Confession, it was a Lombard picture, with Barrymore playing support behind her and frequent co-star Fred MacMurray. She was the star then and he was a legend in decline due to his alcoholism.

The early scenes with Mildred Plotka being taught by Jaffe how to be Lily Garland would therefore seem to have at least some similarities to how Lombard was taught by Hawks to be a star. I wonder how else Hawks equates to Jaffe: there are so many deliberate digs at theatre, film and even the actors themselves that it would hardly be surprising to have some accidental ones in there too. My favourite came when Jaffe has to disguise himself in order to get past a detective and board the train in Chicago. 'I never thought I'd sink so low as to become an actor', says Barrymore, one of the greatest of them all.

And as much as Lombard is great as Lily Garland, hardy surprising given that she would become perhaps the preeminent screwball comedienne of them all, it's Barrymore's show through and through. He plays Jaffe as an unashamed ham, with talent for sure, but a ham nonetheless. His approach to the character is by proxy: we rarely ever see Jaffe at all, we see the characters that Jaffe plays in order to get what he wants and there are many of them. Everything is manoeuvre, subterfuge, flimflam: he leaves Chicago in disguise to avoid debts, pretends a broken arm to gain sympathy from Lily, fakes religion to get financing when he's broke, threatens suicide at the drop of a hat, fires people repeatedly with extreme prejudice but never actually lets them go, tells his star that he trusts her implicitly then taps her phone.

It's impossible not to watch Barrymore here: blink for but a moment and your eyes will open to find him in a new pose, a new look on his face and a new purpose in his step. Everything is theatrical, of course, with three real points of articulation constantly in motion: his eyes, his body and his words. All are used flamboyantly, with wild gestures, postures and histrionics, and sometimes, every once in a while, the three actually seem to agree. It's those points that we see Jaffe not what part Jaffe is playing at the time. That Barrymore can talk to one character, act at another with body language and tell we the viewers through his eyes that he's lying through his teeth to both of them, is testament to his talent. I may just have to adopt his closing the iron door on people.

He's not the only name though, merely the biggest and the most obvious. The other two names on the title screen belong to Walter Connolly and Roscoe Karns. Karns I've seen many times, often in a very similar role to this one as a drunken newsman whose constant wisecracks betray deep understanding and truth. He was usually a journalist or a cab driver or a manager, but whatever he was he always seemed to get a fast-talking role. Given that the first 30 or so of his 150 or so movies were silent, I wonder what they could have done with him given the lack of a voice. Connolly I don't know as well, but I've been impressed with him when I've seen him, usually in a solid supporting role in a screwball comedy, such as those in Nothing Sacred, Libeled Lady or It Happened One Night. He was great in Washington Merry-Go-Round too and I wonder how he could carry a film on his own. Maybe Father Brown, Detective is the one to tell me: among a few detective roles, he plays the title character in that one.

I was delighted to see Etienne Girardot, one of the tiniest supporting actors in Hollywood who wasn't a midget or a dwarf. He's a lunatic here, though a mild mannered one. As an escapee from a lunatic asylum, he causes chaos on the Twentieth Century, not that there wasn't enough of that already, by slapping stickers on everything and everyone reading: 'Repent for the time is at hand.' I know Girardot best from his performances as Dr Doremus, the wonderfully sarcastic coroner in the early Philo Vance films, especially The Kennel Murder Case, but I've seen him elsewhere too and he's always a joy to watch. He's the only actor here to reprise his role from the stage. There are also smaller roles for people as capable as Dale Fuller, Charles Lane and Edgar Kennedy, none of whom disappoint.

The story doesn't belong to Hawks. Though he often contributed to the writing on his films, he doesn't seem to have done so here. If I've unravelled the levels here, it originated as an unproduced play, Napoleon of Broadway, by Charles Bruce Millholland, which presumably means that it was never staged. It was then turned into a play that was staged, by long term collaborators Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who co-wrote many great plays and screenplays. Given that perhaps their crowning achievement was The Front Page, it can't be too surprising that they were both legendary newsmen themselves. No wonder Roscoe Karns's character was so vibrant. Hecht and MacArthur turned their version of the play into a screenplay, with uncredited assistance from Gene Fowler, and somewhere Preston Sturges had an uncredited finger in the writing pie too. Whoever really wrote the thing, it's clever, witty and very quick. And now I want to watch it again.

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