Twentieth Century — Directed by Howard Hawks. Slapstick Screwball Comedy. A theatre director divo spellbinds an actress until she can take no more. 91 minutes Black and White 1934.
* * *
Certain qualities can make an actor popular and even lovable, without their ever being a good actor. Such certainly was the case with Gary Cooper, and such was also the case with Carole Lombard. She was pretty, she had a good figure, and she was spirited, but it is only the last of these qualities which cinched her stardom. Watching her playing Lily Garland, the “discovery” of the manic Broadway Director Oscar Jaffe (based on Jed Harris and others), the most obvious defect of her technique is vocal. Even in repose, she always seems to be screaming, always in her upper passagio. She was Howard Hawks’ first discovery as the Hawksian woman who could stand up to men and compete in their world. He would find it later in Ann Sheridan, Rosalind Russell, and Lauren Bacall – but all of them had low, well-placed voices, and if they had not he would send them into a back room for a couple of weeks and train them to replace them with lower ones, but Hawks hadn’t gotten around to it yet with Lombard. As it is, Lombard’s inability to modulate her voice and her spirit ends up being almost as annoying as John Barrymore’s inability to modulate his own performance into making at least a few local stops into reality. (Carole Lombard’s recently divorced husband, William, Powell, would have been better in the part.) For is Barrymore a ham playing a ham, or is he an actor playing a ham, or is he an actor who has become a ham playing a ham? If you have to ask the question, you already know the answer. Barrymore also had one of those badly placed voices, a high grating tenor. And the film is such a mélange of frenzy in the dog-and-cat fight of its episodes, that it becomes monotonous in its yowling and in its pace that breaks the neck of any audience. Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht wrote it from a hit play of their own, and there are lots of funny lines. Most them are delivered by Roscoe Karns as the drunken press agent. (These were the days when alcoholism was considered droll.) And the movie is worth seeing just to witness the wit style of the era of which Macarthur and Hecht were the masters. But the film as whole I found trying. It feels labored and forced. It demonstrates a complete failure of directorial tone. The famed cameraman Joe August shot it, and I think not well, especially in the theatre scenes, all of which were taken first in the shoot. As per Hawks films, there are almost no close-ups, so that when Lombard appears in one it’s a stylistic shock. If you want to see if Barrymore could act, don’t listen to his Hamlet, see Don Juan or see William Wyler’s Counselor At Law of the year before. And if you want Lombard at her best, see her in the last film she made, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not Be. Twentieth Century started her off in Screwball Comedy. It was not a successful film at the time. It still isn’t.