‘Twentieth Century’ or — The Delight of Spite?

(No spoilers)

Looking at the cover to the blu ray of Howard Hawks’ ‘Twentieth Century’ (1934) I assumed it was a romantic period drama; it shows an elegant woman in a ravishing ball gown looking somewhat emotionally philosophical. So I was expecting a sedate, maybe even respectable, journey in some sort of cinematic horse-drawn carriage as I sat down to watch it last night. Within minutes I realised my mistake — this was no horse-drawn carriage but a rocket, a hypersonic missile! And I was strapped to the nose-cone!

Theatre impresario Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) has decided to turn former lingerie model, Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard), into a star of the stage. With his genius she becomes Lily Garland, yet it soon becomes apparent that Jaffe only wanted to get her into his bed. What a devious and sleazy Svengali!

Not only that but Jaffe soon has poor Lily trapped in an abusive relationship, never allowing her out, having her followed when she does and maybe even tapping her phone! It would be of no surprise if Lily left, although she’d have to ignore Jaffe’s faux suicide attempts to prevent her. Lily has done well out of Jaffe but it seems Jaffe might need Lily’s star power more than she needs him. What a pathetic creature this man is.

And when Lily does make the break, because she sure knows how to fight back, the consequences are vast because Jaffe is not a man to act reasonably or forgive a grudge. If anything, he nurses them to the point that they become lethal enough to be weaponised for retaliation. If these two ever bump into each other again then God knows what will happen?!

So you’ve got two deeply unlikable people gaslighting each other and calling each other every name under the Sun. And this is a romantic comedy?! Except it isn’t… in the slightest as there is no romance on display here. No love either. Or kindness. Or compassion. Or any of those annoying and potentially insincere “nice” emotions we often use to disguise our true feelings. What we do have here is here is spite. Resentment. In fact, this might be the first ever resentment comedy I’ve seen. This isn’t a rom-com; it’s a cartoon with people violently hitting each other over the head with frying pans constructed from words. And I loved it every second of it.

A lot of this power comes from John Barrymore’s Jaffe which might be the greatest comedic performance I’ve seen in… well, ever. He’s a whirling dervish of vitriolic outbursts (“Anathema! Oblivion!”), a man of such powerful self-belief he “comes down like a shower of meteors”. He never even once tries to be sympathetic and I loved the guy for it. It’s one of the greatest comedy performances I’ve witnessed yet no matter how monstrous Barrymore allows his Jaffe to become he never loses the humanity, and that’s important. He’s like Peter Sellers but in possession of an actual soul behind the eyes. I’ve also never laughed so hard at some having their heart smashed to pieces and I think I might behave like that next time I get dumped because it looks like fun.

For an example of Barrymore’s incredible skill, notice when Jaffe asks Lily “Are you trying to hoodwink this child?” and just listen to the delicious emphasis he stresses on the word “child”. It is perfection. Or how about when he gets carried away and suddenly tries to order an Ibis… at a rock bottom price. God, this film is funny.

Plus, not only is Jaffe spectacularly unlikable but he’s also as far away from a typical leading man looks wise as you can get. From here now on it’s going to be men like Gable and Grant and not this manic little psycho with an unhinged stare who says things like “Ting a ling a ling”. But dear Christ, it was funny when Barrymore was saying that at the start of the film but when he does it again at the end I was unable to breathe.

Carole Lombard’s Lily, fortunately, gives as good as she gets and she’s no innocent little angel either. In fact, nobody is. It’s all quite insane with even religion being branded as a mental illness at one point. This is a pre-code film and boy, can you tell. ‘Twentieth Century’ might be 87 years old but it feels modern as hell meaning, ironically, its title is the most old fashioned aspect about it.

Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s script is firing on all cylinders and Hawks directs it as brilliantly as you’d expect. There’s so much going on here, so many details and little bits of business such as the waiter’s cheque which is simple sight gag but I had to pause the movie I was laughing so hard. Or notice near the start when Jaffe orders Oliver to take the gum from his mouth, which Oliver obliging does, only to turn and walk away and pop in back into his mouth as soon as his back is to the camera. It’s a stroke of genius because Hawks knows that we know that’s what Oliver’s going to do… which he does and that’s why we were watching him. The film is packed to bursting point with moments like these.

I won’t spoil the ending but I do want to point out that no growth is achieved… by anyone… at all. Everything has returned full circle to how it was at the start. This is why ‘Twentieth Century’ is not a love story because nothing has been learned, no growth has taken place and nothing has changed. The only difference is that everyone has been amplified by the process, become even more themselves than they already were. This is why Jaffe wearing a top hat is so hysterically funny. That’s the ONLY sign of personal growth or development he’s achieved!

And no growth is a good thing as it means the comedy particles aren’t impeded by the restrictive membranes of insincere maturity or adult responsibility. This turns the movie into a sort of comedic particle accelerator where the jokes can smash into each other at colossal forces as there are no inhibiting barriers to reaching maximum speed.

This film is a comedic masterpiece. You could drop this movie into any writer’s room and it would blow their minds at the skill on display. The film is consistently and hysterically funny, and even though it almost threatens to come off the rails, possibly because it is going so fast, it never does and lands with a final flourish that was, for me, perfection. This is one of Howard Hawks’ funniest films, and when you find yourself typing a sentence like that then you know you’ve just witnessed something special.

‘Twentieth Century’ is one of the greatest films about the theatre, fame, trains or love I’ve seen, except it’s not really about love at all. It’s about something more important, honest and vital to the human condition and that’s knowing how to play together healthily no matter how unhealthy the weapons we use on each other are. If you can do that then everything else is a breeze.



Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.