Thursday, September 29, 2011

Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks, 1934)

Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century is so ahead of its time it serves as a precursor to two great types of Hollywood storytelling: the behind-the-scenes, referential melodrama and the screwball comedy. Even in the film's first segment, in which the dialogue tumbles out with the speed and visceral impact of a golf match, it still feels like the ping-ponged exchanges that would grace Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. Hawks' economic direction, his ability to eke the fullest energy from the simplest, barest setup gives even jazzes up the dim slurring of the drunken sot who moves around the demented Broadway world of the protagonists.

"Discovered" by Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore), an impresario who tyrannically parades around like a scarfed Caesar, a lingerie model named Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard) opens the film infuriating the rest of Jaffe's troupe with her awful acting. Cast in a melodrama, she proves incapable of conveying emotion. She transcends natural acting; she's so plain and starched she proves more suited to play the role of a bread loaf than a frenzied damsel. But Jaffe refuses to fire her, and though his insistence carries predatory desire, somehow his instincts prove correct and Mildred is reborn as star Lily Garland, and a cut across several years instantly hops from a tearful, overwhelmed "Hoboken Cinderella" to a jaded diva.

This time warp throws Hawks' camera forward with such force that it emerged with a momentum that propelled the director at double speed for the next decade. Throwing the lever into high gear, everything speeds up into lunacy: Lombard, whose stiff-mannered nobody couldn't even scream, now speaks solely in melodramatic flourishes. Not to be outdone, though, is Barrymore, who got lost on his way to an Expressionist film. Barrymore has no "natural" response to anything in this movie. At all times, Barrymore is ludicrous: even the mildest surprise registers on his face with such comic exaggeration he looks as if he just found a swaddled baby Quasimodo and got a peek the hideous creature underneath the blanket. He and Lombard engage in a warped romance that mixes sexual lust and power dynamics into a case of mutual love-hate dominated by jealousy and ego. It resembles a cosmic war of deities more than an affair, and the mortals caught between them are just so much collateral damage. Jaffe hires a detective to tap Lily's phones—"Tapping phones is our specialty!" the man crows—and the poor S.O.B. returns looking as if he ran across a puma on the way over.

Hawks himself helped stoke the flames between Barrymore and Lombard, all while trying to get Lombard more comfortable in her role. At this stage in her career, Lombard was known enough to get into the sort of party where Hawks met her but hadn't had her breakthrough yet. Impressed, Hawks had her come read for the film and test with Barrymore, where she bombed. Like Katharine Hepburn four years down the road, Lombard just didn't know how to handle the material, and she came off as flat, not wild like the part needed her to be. Rather than look for another actress, Hawks called her over and asked her what she'd do if a guy said something insulting about her. "I would kick him in the balls," Lombard responded, and Hawks told her that Barrymore had just said whatever would set her off. In a sense, Hawks' own dedication to keeping Lombard until she lived up to the potential he saw in her mirrors Jaffe's treatment of Mildred/Lily, albeit in a far more supportive manner. And clearly, the gambit worked, and not just because it launched Lombard into stardom, where she quickly became the highest-paid star in Hollywood. Lombard plays Mildred/Lily as if she's always on the cusp of hauling off and sending a gam flying up between Jaffe's legs, and her own histrionic sense of importance creates an equal sparring partner for Barrymore's madman.

The two enrage each other to the point that Lily quits Broadway for, naturally, Hollywood, sending Jaffe into a frenzy and leading to an absurd scheme to steal her back by intercepting her on her train, the titular Twentieth Century. The action thus compressed and contained, the film hones its banter into bottlenecked madness, expanding the cast to include Lily's new, put-upon paramour, and a mysterious old codger (Etienne Giradot) who speaks of having so much money he despairs not being able to spend it all and amuses himself by pasting apocalyptic stickers wherever he can put them. As Lily and Jaffe explode at and over each other in cramped proximity, the white "Repent!" discs proliferate like bacteria in a petri dish, adding a visual element of chaos to the war of gesticulation between the two sort-of lovers. Giradot's matter-of-fact attitude when placing these stickers is hilarious, as if this is his day job and he's just sticking crap to windows and unsuspecting people until the 5 o'clock whistle blows.

A host of great lines skewer the self-importance of the art crowd, my favorite being Jaffe's grim dismissal, "I close the iron door on you" stressed as if the increasingly disinterested minions at his disposal are about to be black-bagged and shipped to the gulag. It's such a hysterically overwrought condemnation that even those on the receiving end grow weary of its hydrogen-inflated doom. But like any jumped-up tyrant, Jaffe's unsparing power comes from an intense fear of losing it, and Lily's defiance drives him so wild not merely because of his obvious feelings for her (feelings he can never articulate because he hates her just as passionately as he worships her) but because she can shatter his myopic sense of totalitarian authority. Sure enough, the film concludes by closing the circle, Jaffe having swindled his leading lady back into subservience, but where we met a timid, insecure woman, now we see an embittered, hollowed-out diva arguing with the same instructions Jaffe used to bring out her latent talent. This new cycle promises to be even more ridiculous than the last.


  1. Great encapsulation of this movie's manic appeal. I love the multiple layers implied by its constructions: actors playing actors who are always acting, even when they aren't on stage. And as you say, the onscreen relationship between Lombard and Barrymore's characters is a warped mirror of the offscreen mentor/discovery relationship between Hawks and Lombard. It's such an uproariously funny, clever film, going over-the-top to capture the hilarious conflict of these larger than life figures. I love your comparison of it to gods doing battle among mortals.

  2. I honestly don't think I stopped laughing. Even when Lombard and Barrymore aren't speaking, they are just so HUGE, so bombastic that just sitting in a cramped train car takes on a cosmic importance. Barrymore's line "I never thought I'd sink so low as to become an actor," said with such melodrama he's no longer on Earth, absolutely slays me.