Wednesday, February 7, 2018
Howard Hawks | Twentieth Century
by Douglas Messerli
Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, Gene Fowler (uncredited) and Preston Sturges (uncredited) (writers, based on a play by Charles Bruce Millholland), Howard Hawks (director) Twentieth Century / 1934
Along with It Happened One Night, produced by the same studio, Columbia Pictures, the very same year Howard Hawks’ 1934 film, Twentieth Century (named not after the century, but the famed train from Chicago to New York) would come to define what was soon would be called “screwball comedies.”
In Hawks’ case, the genre generally involved lovable but generally inept male figures who meet up with powerfully smart women with whom they quickly fall in love but are continually vexed, encouraging the two verbally (and sometimes physically) to duke it out. The fun, one might argue, is all in the fight, a realization Edward Albee must have perceived in his less comedic representation, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Yet, it would be interesting to trace the relationship of the Albee play to this genre, particularly as practiced by Hawks, which some day I might attempt. In any event, it is evident that Hawks felt that if you truly loved someone, you endlessly fought.
In this case the two boxers are Lily Garland (formerly Mildred Plotka) (Carole Lombard, surely the queen of screwball comedy) and Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore, performing here in his very last great role).
Jaffe has just hired Garland to perform in his new play, a seemingly ridiculous Southern melodrama. The problem is, as assistant director Max Jacobs (Charles Lane) quickly perceives, Garland cannot act. In order to teach her how to properly emote, Jaffe uses chalk to chart out her movements, and a pearl-headed pin in order to teach her how to scream on cue.
Despite what appears to be a rather insipid affair, the play is a hit, and Garland becomes a star, Jaffe quickly insinuating himself into her life and bed. Over the next few years, she stars in three more of his shows, turning them all into hits.
But during this same period, it is evident, this hammy Svengali has utterly attempted to control Garland’s life, where she goes, and who she befriends. Finally, fed up with his controlling ways, she determines to go to party on her own. A fearful Jaffe relents, promising to be more trusting, yet secretly hires a detective to follow her who goes as far as tapping her phone. When she finally discovers his treachery, she finally leaves for Hollywood, where she continues to be a great star.
Jaffe, meanwhile, trying to survive without his Pygmalion, produces flop after flop, and finally must escape another stage failure in Chicago by stowing away on the Twentieth Century train in disguise.
Quite by accident (there is no explanation of why Garland is suddenly in Chicago making her way to New York, except to suggest that she is on her way to see her new director, Jaffe’s former employee, Max Jacobs) his protégé is ensconced in the train suite adjoining Jaffe’s, and when his comic stooges, Oliver Webb (Walter Connolly) and constantly drunk Owen O'Malley (Roscoe Karns) discover that fact, Jaffe plots to get his girl back, intruding even upon a love scene she is playing out with her new boyfriend, as the former lover hopes to get her to sign a contract for a new, as yet nonexistent play.
Add to these hijinks the existence on board of a harmless lunatic, Mathew J. Clark (Etienne Girardot), who posts religiously-inspired “The End of the World Is Near” stickers over nearly every object and being on the train and who also passes out bogus checks, and you have the making of a true farce that, evidently, upon the film’s release was not well received, several critics arguing for a more restrained comedy. For today’s audience, however, the chaos that ensues is just about perfect, and certainly after World War II and, even more particularly, in our quite insane Trump era, makes perfect sense.
Jaffe’s strategy, involving an exaggerated struggle with Clark and a mad quickly cooked-up plot for a drama about Mary Magdalene—which Jaffe describes as "sensual, heartless, but beautiful – running the gamut from the gutter, to glory – can you see her Lily? – the little wanton ending up in tears at the foot of the cross. I'm going to have Judas strangle himself with her hair." Of course, the ruse works, since, as we all know Garland is still in love with her Svengali, despite her protests.
And despite the film’s box office failure at the time of its release, the movie helped make Lombard’s career, even though some critics saw it as a no more than a satisfactory performance. Perhaps they simply couldn’t see her often whining hysterics as the comic delights we see them as today.
The film ends with a kind of repeat of the beginning, with Jaffe’s domineering directorial commands as they rehearse the new, equally unbearable play. Yet, it too is sure to be a hit, for Garland, we recognize, is the true one in control, try what he might. In screwball comedies it is always the woman, even if she temporarily gives in to the masculine authority, who rules. And that’s the fun of this genre, the irony that the male ego doesn’t like to admit. Intelligent women rule the world, sometimes even in their apparent submission, a theme repeated again and again throughout literature. As Lombard, about to marry a surprised and nonplussed William Powell in another classic screwball comedy, My Man Godfrey, commands her soon-to-be husband:
Stand still, Godfrey. It'll all be over in a minute.
Los Angeles, February 7, 2018