' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Twentieth Century

Friday, October 21, 2011

Friday's Old Fashioned: Twentieth Century

Talk about a film changing with the times. "Twentieth Century" (1934), Howard Hawks first comedy talkie and the movie that launched the immense star of Carol Lombard, is billed quite distinctly as a screwball comedy. "A harum scarum adventure," wrote Mordaunt Hall for the NY Times 77 years ago. Here, in 2011, this viewer saw a much more grisly tale interspersed with some dizzying dialogue and occasional comedy about a maniacal producer named Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) with a sinewy moustache, slapdash hair and a deranged glint his eyes (not unlike Gene Wilder in "Young Frankenstein") who manipulates and molds Mildred Plotka (Lombard), lingerie model, into Lillian Garland, toast of Broadway. Put a flowing black cape on this dude and he'd be tying Lombard to the train tracks. Eventually his boorish behavior drives her away before he schemes his way back in.
The opening 15 minutes is fairly frightening, though extremely well done, as we watch Jaffe break the hapless Plotka all the way down and then build her back up, forcing her to recite one line over and over and walk through a fake door over and over and follow chalk lines for stage blocking and finally eliciting from her the proper scream by thrusting a pin into her back. And it's all worth it because the play is a resounding success, as are the next several before Jaffe's distinctly cruel ways cause the newly christened Lillian to break off the partnership. Jaffe promptly threatens to hurl himself out a window, Lillian promptly decides to stay and he promises to tone down his antics. He promptly hires a private investigator to track her every move. She finds out and promptly (finally) flees the coop for Hollywood, turning into a motion picture star and sending her demanding mentor into a tailspin.

Now with creditors hot on his trail after yet another flop, Jaffe hops the Twentieth Century Limited bound for Chicago (victim of a crack by some cockamamie New Yorker who thinks he's better than us). Guess who else is aboard said train? It is here on the train where "Twentieth Century" most resembles a screwball, I suppose, with Jaffe and Lillian next door to one another, going in and out, and Lillian dealing with her boyfriend who wants to deal Jaffe a punch to the nose and Jaffe's long suffering assistants who gradually become more alcoholic as the film progresses to the escaped mental patient doubling as religious nitwit skulking about the train and putting up "Repent! The end is near!" stickers (not unlike Harold Camping) who unwittingly tricks a hapless assistant and Jaffe into thinking he can finance the new play.

Yet it all spirals into more wanton trickery by which Jaffe pulls Lillian right back into the spiderweb and the film ends the way it started. It's "12 Monkeys", really, without the time travel and 12 monkeys. It's depressing. Like, super depressing if you stop for just a second and consider it. Did this ending make people howl at the cinema in 1933? Poor Lillian. You could argue she makes her proverbial bed and has to sleep in it but nontheless, Jaffe's pretty much a horse's ass and not in the Steve Carrell on "The Office" sort of way. And if you think about it some more it's not unlike the Michael Bay/Megan Fox relationship. A tyrant finds a model, sculpts her into his every desire, turns her into a star, and fed up with his wicked ways she breaks off the partnership. Except, of course, whereas Jaffe fails to turn Valerie Whitehouse into the new Lillian Garland it appears that Bay has managed to turn Rosie Huntington Whiteley into the new Megan Fox.

Michael Bay can't even fall into trouble with creditors.


VP81955 said...

As a longtime Lombard fan, I can see where you're coming from (though the train was actually headed eastbound to New York after Oscar Jaffe's play flops in Chicago; to avoid creditors who want to arrest him, he disguises himself). However, Lombard's Lily Garland is every bit as overblown as Jaffe is -- and that's part of the fun. Both are self-inflated personalities who probably deserve to get the pin-prick treatment; instead, they get each other.

Nice blog, BTW.

VP81955 said...

I should also mention I have a blog of my own that focuses on Lombard in particular and classic Hollywood in general, and I think you would enjoy it. I call it "Carole & Co."; it's been around for nearly 4 1/2 years, with more than 300 members and 1,750 entries. You can find us at http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com