Twentieth Century (1934): Howard Hawks’ Top Screwball Comedy, Starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard

One of the best screwball comedies of the Depression era, Twentieth Century, as the title indicates, is set on the 20th Century Limited train en route from Chicago to New York City.

Twentieth Century originated from Napoleon of Broadway, a play by Charles Bruce Millholland about his experiences in working for the legendary and eccentric Broadway producer David Belasco. His play was not produced, but it became the basis for the 1932 Hecht-MacArthur comedy, which ran for 152 performances on Broadway.

Directed by Howard Hawks, the film stars John Barrymore and Carole Lombard at their very best, and features Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, and Edgar Kennedy.

Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur adapted their Broadwa play– itself based on the unproduced play Napoleon of Broadway by Charles Bruce Millholland, with uncredited contributions from Gene Fowler and Preston Sturges.

Hawks’ rapid-fire romantic comedy includes the essential ingredients of the screwballa dizzy dame, a charming but befuddled hero, dazzling dialogue and slapstick humor.

Barrymore plays grandiose Broadway impresario Oscar Jaffe, who takes an unknown lingerie model named Mildred Plotka (Lombard) and makes her the star of his latest play, despite the grave misgivings of everyone else, including his two long-suffering assistants, accountant Oliver Webb and the consistently tipsy Owen O’Malley. Through intensive training, Oscar transforms his protegée into the actress “Lily Garland”, and both she and the play are resounding successes. Over the next three years, their partnership spawns three more smash hits, and Lily is recognized as a transcendent talent.

Then Lily tries to break off their professional and personal relationship, fed up with Oscar’s overpossesiveness and control of every aspect of her life. Oscar talks her out of it, promising to be more trusting and less controlling in the future. Instead, he secretly hires a private detective agency run by McGonigle to watch her every move, even tapping her telephone. When she finds out, it is the last straw; she leaves for Hollywood and soon becomes a big movie star.

Without Lily, Oscar produces flop after flop. After one such disappointment, to avoid being imprisoned for his debts, he is forced to disguise himself to board the luxurious Twentieth Century Limited train travelling from Chicago to New York City’s Grand Central. By chance, Lily Garland boards the train at a later stop with her boyfriend George Smith. After prevaricating, Oscar sees a chance to restore his fortunes and salvage his relationship with Lily.

He schemes to get her to sign a contract with him. However, Lily is on her way to see Oscar’s rival (and former employee), Max Jacobs, to star in his play.  Oscar manages to get George to break up with her. Knowing that Lily offers him a last chance at professional success he asks her to play Mary Magdalene in his new play.

When Oscar is slightly wounded in a scuffle with Clark, a passenger who’s escapee from mental asylum, he pretends to be dying and gets a distraught Lily to sign his contract.

The film ends with their first rehearsal, where Oscar reverts to his usual domineering self.

Premiering in New York on May 3, 1934, the film propelled Carole Lombard into major stardom, though, initially, it was a box office failure.

Cultural Status

In December 2011, Twentieth Century was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

From Screen to Stage

In 1978, Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green created a musical On the Twentieth Century based on this film, the original Hecht and MacArthur play and Millholland’s unpublished play, which ran on Broadway for 460 performances.

Cast

John Barrymore as Oscar “O.J.” Jaffe

Carole Lombard as Lily Garland, aka Mildred Plotka

Walter Connolly as Oliver Webb

Roscoe Karns as Owen O’Malley

Ralph Forbes as George Smit

Charles Lane as Max Jacobs

Etienne Girardot as Mathew J. Clar

Edgard Kennedy as Oscar McGonigle

James P. Burtis as Train conductor

Fred “Snowflake” Toones as Train porter