TCM Pick for September: Pre-Code
One of my many pleasures in life is receiving my TCM “Now Playing” guide and reviewing the upcoming movies for the month. It’s not only fun picking out the pictures that I plan to watch, but I also enjoy scouring the entries in search of my TCM pick – and this month’s pre-Code selection was a no-brainer: Twentieth Century, starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. It offers one of my top three favorite Lombard performances (along with My Man Godfrey and Mr. and Mrs. Smith), and it’s my absolute favorite Barrymore film. The stellar cast also includes Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, and Charles Lane.
I remember the first time I saw this film – it was a revelation. I didn’t know there were movies like this. It’s so good! It airs on TCM on Monday, September 23rd – mark your calendars now!
It’s pretty simple. Oscar Jaffe, a temperamental, overdramatic, self-proclaimed genius theatrical director, creates a star out of a former lingerie salesgirl, renaming his creation Lily Garland (Carole Lombard). The two become a team both on and off the stage, but when Oscar’s oppressively jealous nature drives Lily away, he’ll do anything to get her back.
The film’s name refers to the famed passenger train that traveled between Chicago and New York from 1902 through the late 1960s. More than half of the picture takes place aboard the train.
There are countless great scenes, but my favorite is the opening, which introduces us to the film’s main characters. It’s the first day of rehearsals for Oscar Jaffe’s new play, and his new discovery, Lily – the former Mildred Plotka – is offering a less-than-stellar debut. But Oscar is convinced of Lily’s talent, and when he turns on the full force of his directorial capabilities, it’s something to see – he’s all over everywhere – berating his underlings, playing multiple parts (even the part of a ringing telephone), drawing chalk lines to show the cast how and where to move, forcing Lily to say her lines over and over again for hours, even employing the sharp end of a hat pin to coax a desired reaction from his new star. It’s hilarious.
(Honorable mention for the scene when Oscar learns that Lily has left him. Barrymore is a positive scream.)
I have several favorites – all spoken by that over-the-top ham, Oscar Jaffe:
“You squalling little amateur – on your feet! Get up! Take that hump out of your back. You’re not demonstrating underwear anymore.”
“Owen, take this creature who came to me as an office boy as Max Mendelbaum – and who is now Max Jacobs for some mysterious reason – and throw him into the street!”
“I wouldn’t take that woman back if she and I were the last people in the world and the future of the human race depended on it!”
“Who is that? That fellow kissing her? This is the final irony. Mousing around with boys. After Oscar Jaffe! I always knew she’d head for the gutter.”
“It’s typical of my career that in the great crises of life, I should stand flanked by two incompetent alcoholics.”
(And one more, this gem from Lily: “Who cares about your respect? I’m too big to be respected.”)
The film was based on a play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur that opened on Broadway on December 29, 1932, and ran for 152 performances. Hecht and MacArthur adapted their work from an unproduced play called Napoleon of Broadway by Charles Bruce Millholland. Millholland based it on his experiences working with famed eccentric Broadway producer David Belasco.
The original Broadway play featured William Frawley (Fred in I Love Lucy) in the role played by Roscoe Karns in the film, and Etienne Girardot, who reprised his part in the film as a religious zealot. Girardot, who was in his 70s when the movie was filmed, died in 1939.
Barrymore said that Twentieth Century was his favorite of all his films, and called the part of Oscar Jaffe “a role that comes once in a lifetime.” (And watching his performance, you can see why it was his favorite role – he looks like he’s having a ball!)
After filming on the movie was over, Barrymore gave Lombard an autographed photo of himself inscribed, “To the finest actress I have worked with, bar none.”
Oscar’s stage manager was played by Charles Lane, whose career started in 1931, when he portrayed a desk clerk in Smart Money, and extended through the 1990s. In Twentieth Century, Lane was still being billed under his given name, Charles Levison. Incidentally, Lane was one of the last survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and one of the first members of the Screen Actors Guild. He died at the age of 102 in 2007.
The film was directed by Howard Hawks who , during his distinguished career, helmed such classics as Scarface (1932), His Girl Friday (1940), Sergeant York (1941), Ball of Fire (1941), The Big Sleep (1946), and Rio Bravo (1959).
If you like pre-Code, screwball comedies, Carole Lombard, John Barrymore, or just a really good time at the movies, you have to watch this one. Its witty script, fast-moving direction, and first-rate performances combine for a cinematic treat that you won’t want to miss.
You only owe it to yourself. (For real.)