I blame the heat and the overworking – I completely forgot about the Second Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon.
I mean… forgetting about the Barrymores?
And call myself a film lover? Ah!
But there’s still time, and here we go – hosted by the In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood blog, this blogathon celebrates one of the most famous families in Hollywood.
John Barrymore, Ethel Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore all the way to Drew Barrymore…
So, point your browser to the link above for a full list of the blogs participating in this online event.
And then come back here, because we are about to ride on a train called Twentieth Century…
In 1934, John Barrymore’s career was considered on a downward spiral.
He had been both Hamlet and Richard III on stage, and both Sherlock Holmes and Dr Jackyl and Mr Hyde on screen. he had made the transition from the silents to the talkies smoothly, his theater-trained voice an asset.
But time is merciless, as is the ticket-buying public, and in 1934, John Barrymore’s star was waning.
But Haward Hawks needed an actor to play the greatest ham of all time, and so he called Barrymore, explaining that he was perfect for the part.
So they did Twentieth Century, according to the critics, the last great movie featuring John Barrymore.
Twentieth Century is the name of a train, running from Chicago to New York.
On the train, Oscar Jaffe, the Napoleon of Broadway, the greatest ham of all time, running from his creditors after a disastrous season.
On the same train travels Lily Garland (Carole Lombard), that was Mildred Plotka before Jaffe turned her into a star. The two were lovers, but Jaffe is such a manipulative egomaniac that the relationship deteriorated, and she left him and the stage, and is now a Hollywood star.
Jaffe is trying to evade his pursuers while winning back – by overacting and taking melodramatic stances – the woman he probably loves, and certainly needs to get back in the saddle. A woman that seems to have no intention whatsoever to get back in the hell that was their relationship.
Twentieth Century is a great fun movie, one in which two excellent actors play the parts of two very bad actors – and if Barrymore/Jaffe hams it like there’s no tomorrow, in the early scenes in which poor Mildred Plotka is subject to the “teachings” of Jaffe, Lombard is so bad she’s actually painful to watch.
Apparently the production was not so hot about having Lombard as the female lead, she being as yet “untested” (and yet, in 1934 Carole Lombard had something like fifteen years of experience, having started acting at the tender age of 12), but Hawks pressured them, and in the end the deal was done.
In fact, a great chemistry developed between the two leads, despite that thing about the kick…
Because there is a scene, you see, in which Lombard was supposed to kick Barrymore, and she was just too much in awe of the great actor to actually kick him in a believable way.
So Hawks took her for a walk, and they had a chat, and when she told him how much she respected John Barrymore, Hawks nonchalantly noted that it was funny, because barrymore usually referred to her with a string of very bad words.
On the next take, she had no problem kicking poor Barrymore – only to discover later that Hawks had made up the whole story.
Method acting, sort of.
Twentieth Century is a screwball comedy, one of the first (the other runner-up for the title of first screwball is It Happened One Night, that came out the same year), and as such is fast and furious and fun, filled with jokes and snappy dialogs and an incredible supporting cast, that carries a fair portion of the comedy. It is a merciless but amusing take on Broadway and Hollywood and the fauna that peoples those exotic locales. It is really a great movie, beautifully photographed and masterfully directed.
And it flopped.
Probably the audience was not ready for the breakneck pace of the plot, or for the tongue-in-cheek wordplay and the innuendos.
Some of the jokes were considered too much by the Hays boys, including the one about Jaffe planning a new stage show about Mary Magdalen…
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.
Some people have no sense of humor.
And there were problems, too, for the excessive violence of the famous “pin” scene…
In the end, Jaffe’s escape from his creditors and his pursuit of his former lover, star and muse, makes for a great comedy, that has aged marvelously. Lombard is beautiful (but I’m in love with Carole Lombard, you know that) and Barrymore is certainly the greatest ham or all times. Or at least plays one in a very convincing way.
Well worth watching.