June 21, 2011

Twentieth Century (1934)
Grade: 53/100

Director: Howard Hawks
Stars: John Barrymore, Carole Lombard, Walter Connolly

What it's about. Mercurial Broadway producer John Barrymore loses Carole Lombard, his leading lady on stage and off, to Hollywood. Her career soars, his sinks, and bankruptcy looms unless he can get her to return to him under contract.

How others will see it. This movie was a box office success, but notably, it failed to gather any Oscar nominations, during a year (1935) when twelve films were up for Best Picture.

Today, the film is highly popular at imdb.com. The user ratings are extremely high for females, and for viewers over 45. Those in both categories give the film a whopping 9.3 out of 10. Presumably, that demographic adores Lombard, and thinks that both Lombard and Barrymore are a "stitch."

At imdb.com, though, a sizeable minority dislikes the film for its "All in the Family"-style shouting and carping. Somewhere, people act like adults. They are not cinematic, but they are adults.

How I felt about it. Here is a film that, on paper, should be terrific. Howard Hawks is the director, and one of the greatest of all time. Ben Hecht is the lead screenwriter. John Barrymore, one of the best actors of the early 1930s, is in the lead, and Carole Lombard, one of the best comediennes of her era, has a star-making role.

We also like the supporting cast: Walter Connolly as the anxious, often fired business manager for Barrymore; Roscoe Karns, the hard-drinking, wise-cracking press agent for Barrymore; Charles Lane as Barrymore's harried stage director; Dale Fuller as prima donna Lombard's horse-faced servant; and Etienne Girardot as a "harmless" prankster, con artist, and snake oil salesman. This list leaves out only Lombard's paramour, Ralph Forbes, who is boring.

But it takes more than ingredients to prepare a banquet. The most blatant problem is outrageous acting by both Barrymore and Lombard. I don't blame them a whit. The fault is Hawks. It is true that Hawks later directed Bringing Up Baby, the model of the screwball comedy. Twentieth Century is also a screwball comedy.

But what worked for Baby doesn't work here. There, Hepburn parodied her stereotype as an affected socialite. Here, Lombard enforced the stereotype of the shrill and spoiled lead actress. There, Cary Grant slowly got tangled up in a web of nonsensical romance. Here, Barrymore blusters, schemes, and bellows, but he's not romantic, and he's not even credible. He is amusing, but this is more due to Barrymore's skill as an actor, than Hawks' far over-the-top direction.

Per imdb.com, Barrymore's character is Hecht's "tribute" to Broadway producer David Belasco, who had died in 1931, shortly before Hecht wrote the source play. One wonders how Belasco would have viewed his inspiration. Likely he would have said, "He doesn't act like me at all." And, perhaps, "I am getting a headache listening to them argue like banshees."