With Twentieth Century (1934), director Howard Hawks—with a lot of help from writers Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and stars John Barrymore and Carole Lombard—invented something new: the screwball comedy. It was new in that the romantic leads were the central comedians and behaved just as outrageously as the wildest of comics, yet—and this was the hard part—they retained their romantic and sex-appeal qualities. It was fresh, innovative and, above all, it was hysterically funny. This free-for-all about a legendary Broadway producer (Barrymore) and the underwear model (Lombard) he transforms into a star is not merely the first of its kind, it remains the best and funniest of its kind.
For the uninitiated, I should probably explain that the film’s title refers to the Twentieth Century Limited, the train that connected Chicago and New York City, and on which much of the film’s action takes place. The train ceased to exist in 1967, but the film (and play) bearing its name is very much still with us.
The story concerns the “wizard of Broadway,” Oscar Jaffe (Barrymore), who must be a wizard indeed from the looks of the plays he stages. We see a poster for something called Bride of Bagdad, and there are references to a disastrous production of Joan of Arc, but most of what we see rehearsed consists of romantic melodramas of the Old South (“y’all” and variants rule the dialogue) that it’s quite impossible to imagine anyone sitting through. Wizardry can be the only explanation. It’s something like that—with the help of chalk and a hatpin—that allows him to turn Mildred Plotke (Lombard) into Lily Garland, the toast of Broadway.
The problem is that the two have become romantically involved and Jaffe is a control freak of some note with a propensity for (seemingly unwarranted) jealousy. Not surprisingly, this causes problems—problems that ultimately lead to Lily deserting him for a Hollywood contract, an event that changes Jaffe’s fortunes very much for the worse. A glimmer of hope appears when the two happen to cross paths on the titular train. Is it perhaps possible—as Jaffe’s press agent (Roscoe Karns) puts it—that “Mr. Bromo could get back again with Miss Seltzer?”
Detailing the plot does nothing to actually describe what makes Twentieth Century funny. The only way to really understand that is to see it, to experience it. It’s not just any single element that makes it work. It’s the way a script bristling with clever lines and situations is brought to life by skillful direction and acting. It’s actually seeing John Barrymore do an impression of a camel. It’s witnessing Barrymore’s no-holds-barred approach to the innate theatricality of his character. Both Jaffe and Lily are so much of the theater that everything they say and do is colored by it. They don’t have conversations and encounters, they play scenes—even adjust the lighting and make sure they have the right props for maximum effect. And it’s experiencing the electrifying chemistry between the two performers. Neither was quite this good before, nor would they be quite this good again.
Try the film for yourself. I’ve seen it theatrically at least four times—and I have yet to see the audience that didn’t end up loving the film. There really aren’t all that many chances to go to the movies and have this much fun.