I (Lara) first discovered TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934) because of Carole Lombard. I was fascinated by this gorgeous dame who had landed William Powell and Clark Gable, and I wanted to see what a “screwball comedienne” was. Watching the film, though, I was equally fascinated by the floppy-haired dude who looked like an older Drew Barrymore with a mustache (He is her paternal grandfather, btw). John Barrymore’s portrayal of Broadway producer Oscar “O.J.” Jaffe had me howling with laughter, but it was also surprisingly touching. And I think that’s one of the many things John did so well; he was able to portray cads ( see DINNER AT EIGHT and GRAND HOTEL) in a way that had you rooting for him to come out on top it AND get the girl.
My friend Lou Lazzara, a celebrity makeup artist and art gallery owner, once told me a story he heard from a famous director about how John had once been asked to cry for a scene. John responded with something like, “Out of which eye would you like the tears to come?” There was nothing he couldn’t do, and he made it all look so effortless. To see John Barrymore in action on screen is to experience true star power and charisma, and I have always wondered how much he was like some of his characters in real life. In TWENTIETH CENTURY, Carole’s character remarks that she and Oscar (John) are only real between the curtains; they are always acting, and can’t seem to relate to each other in an authentic way. In fact, at one point on the train (which is called the Twentieth Century) and away from the stage or cameras Oscar comments on how Lily is crying and she is like, “Of course I’m crying…it’s that sort of scene.”
TWENTIETH CENTURY has beautiful people, rapid-fire dialogue, gorgeous costume design courtesy of (Robert) Kalloch, and a locomotive that captures the spirit of the golden age of railroad travel. It was directed and produced by Howard Hawks, with a script by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht (with some uncredited contributions from Gene Fowler and Preston Sturges) based on the play NAPOLEON OF BROADWAY. THE HISTORY OF FASHION IN FILM author and speaker Kimberly Truhler has talked about how in the twenties, the process of film was being perfected, and in the thirties, it was all about perfecting film as an art form. TWENTIETH CENTURY has been called a kind of prototype for screwball comedy, and when you watch later films from Howard Hawks (like HIS GIRL FRIDAY) you see how he really came to nail the genre and was figuring it out in this one.
Let me set up the story for you: John plays Oscar, a successful Broadway producer, who has discovered Lily, a lingerie model. He teaches her how to act, she becomes a big star AND Oscar’s girl, and together they enjoy a ton of professional success. However, Oscar’s need for control and Lily’s need for freedom drive them apart, and she bolts for Hollywood to become a screen queen. Without Lily, Oscar’s career tanks…and then he discovers that they are both on the Twentieth Century train, and hatches a plan to get her into his new play and save his career.
One of the many things I love about classic films is that so many of them feature such keen observations about people and life, and in this one it’s all about how John/Oscar manipulates the people around him. I wanted to break down the way that this master player operates when it comes to women, so–courtesy of Oscar Jaffe–here is how to win a gal, lose a gal, and win a gal in 10 ways:
- Discover her and take her from lingerie model to Broadway star. What’s that? She can’t act her way out of a paper bag? Impersonate a doorbell to run lines with her, draw tracks on the floor to show her where to stand and move, and then stick her with a pin on her behind to teach her to scream at a key moment.
- After a triumphant opening night, kneel at her feet, kiss her hand, and apologize for all the mean things you said while your hair looks extra fluffy. Promise to take her higher than any Broadway star before. Hang a star on her dressing room that once (allegedly) hung on Sarah Bernhardt’s door. Then, go in for the kiss.
- Don’t let her mingle with the “riffraff” (anyone except the two of you). When she pushes back, remind her of everything you’ve done for her and pretend you are going to jump out of a window. Call her a “wash woman’s daughter” and refer to her previous underwear career. Beg for her forgiveness and promise to not be jealous anymore. When she relents, immediately put a detective on her to track her every move and tap her phone.
- When she realizes what you’re up to and leaves, repeat her name over and over, gaze into the distance, throw paint over her poster, laugh maniacally, and promise to wipe her off the face of the earth. And don’t forget to tell the press that you have fired her and thrown her out. Replace her in your play with an unknown.
- After she becomes a huge star in Hollywood, spend $1800 on long-distance calls, only to have her hang up on you every time. Fall into professional ruin.
- Travel on the Twentieth Century, discover she is also on the train, and realize she is the only one who can save you by appearing in one of your productions.
- Dispense of her new love by “letting it slip” that you had one of the great romances of all time, and when the new guy storms out, comment on his wordless exit and tell her that’s what you should have had in one of your plays.
- Let your minions/partners know that you’ve just played quite a scene and you’ve got her in a perfect mood. Be sure to use your “broken arm” that you have put in a sling to your advantage to gain sympathy. Roll your rrrrrs (“If he’d been a lover…a rrrrrrreal man…”).
- When all else fails, admit you never appreciated her and that she was the one that mattered. Compare her acting in the films to a magnificent ruby being thrown into a platter of lard, and offer her the chance to star in your play covered only in emeralds as Mary Magdalene, complete with 100 camels and sand from the Holy Land.
- If even THAT fails, play it like the final scene of CAMILLE, pale and beautiful as you call for your love in your final moments.
But, of course…that is not TRULY the end. 😉
Where John Barrymore Was Living When He Made TWENTIETH CENTURY
The Barrymore Estate/Bella Vista is perched high on a hill above Beverly Hills; it is so high up that when I was there I felt the sea breeze! The home was built in the twenties for King Vidor and Eleanor Boardman by architect John Byer, who was known as the innovator of the Spanish Colonial style of architecture. They were only there for a few years before selling it to John Barrymore in 1927, who lived there until his death in the forties. Director Tony Scott (TOP GUN) bought the property in the 1990s.
Bella Vista is truly one of the most gorgeous homes I have ever seen; the whole estate is sprawling when you take into account the guest homes and total acreage, but there is something so charming and cozy about the main home that it is easy to picture living your life there and making coffee in the kitchen and then taking it down to the library to do some reading and writing, or curling up in the master bedroom with city lights twinkling below you. Or splashing around under the waterfall in the pool. One of the reasons I love buildings from the twenties and thirties is that you don’t see care and quality and glamour and luxury like this very much these days; Bella Vista features unique touches like a redwood floor and a stone fireplace that I was told came from a 700-year-old Scottish castle (!!!).
This is a special place, and you can feel all the history and secrets that the walls hold when you are there. For more information, click here.
Lara Scott is an on-air radio host at in Los Angeles, the co-host of the Classic Movie Recall podcast, and the author of FROM THE CORNER OF HOLLYWOOD AND DIVINE: YOUR GUIDE TO 30 OLD HOLLYWOOD-INSPIRED SPOTS IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA. In her spare time, she can be found taking pictures of Art Deco buildings, trying on vintage clothing, and working on a second book about fun places for kids in Los Angeles with her young son.