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Monday, April 30, 2018

Train Load Of Precode

20th Century (1934) Is Barrymore's Last Roar

It must have been quite something to sit in a theatre and watch a play about staging a play. 20th Century had been a major hit on Broadway, so was known quantity and a squeaker under lowering net that was fuller enforcement by the PCA (released May 1934). 20th Century improves for me on repeat viewings now that I'm reconciled to shouting that goes on throughout. Howard Hawks comedies had a habit of setting a pitch early on and expressed in terms of high decibel plus speed that never flags. I've seen modern viewers exhaust fast on Hawks comedies. He might be credited as a screwball pioneer depending on your definition of screwball. Hawks did introduce a new wrinkle to comedy by using name stars as buffoons, per John Barrymore and Carole Lombard here playing at clowns. We can see  contradiction between what a public expected and what Hawks delivered by looking at posters for 20th Century, the leads depicted on glamour and romance terms for sell purpose, with no suggestion of manic performance both give in the film. 20th Century did $308K in domestic rentals, less than most Columbia A's or any of the Capras (excepting The Bitter Tea Of General Yen). It got nothing of word-of-mouth that propelled It Happened One Night, with which hopeful ads compared 20th Century.

What standing the film acquired had to come much later, 20th Century a property every actor sought to play. Television staged it often, once with Orson Welles and Betty Grable, a pairing I'd like to see if any kinescope exists. The 1934 20th Century profited more inside the industry than out, for however a public misunderstood or rejected it, there were definitely ideas here that could be refined, or better put, softened, by others who'd pursue the screwball concept. Hawks was like The Fountainhead's Howard Roark introducing a radical mold for colleagues to later chip at and re-form to fit H'wood convention. No screwball cast would be so uninhibited as Barrymore and Lombard here. Every performance she'd give was subtle drop from this, but again, how could any career with hope of sustaining do so at energy projected in 20th Century? For Barrymore it mattered less, for this was his last roar in a lead, and besides, he was known for try-anything and indifference to rigid image others might impose on him, JB long celebrated for range whereas Lombard was not as yet. He had nothing to lose by playing 20th Century full-out. I wonder if any director other than Hawks could have gotten this last epic performance from Barrymore, the profile fast collapsing as 20th Century went forward during February-March 1934.

Mae West Endorses a 1933 Performance of the Play in Hollywood  

The "Oscar Jaffe" character was evidently based on several Broadway impresarios. Anyone who could mount repeated successes in this viciously competitive trade had to be, by definition, bigger than life. In fact, many such men were despised, especially by actors and others who jumped when they hollered. Was ever a Broadway personage depicted who was not utterly self-centered? Persistent image of players who have no identity outside of characters they enact is well maintained here. That's spelled out in dialogue referring to Carole Lombard's "Lily Garland." I've wondered if there was truth to such prevailing belief. More than a few have told me that actors are less real people than mere fictional ones they portray. How much did Lombard become a screwball after 20th Century got her noticed for that? There was much press and publicity afterward of her doing crazy stunts, playing lavish practical jokes on peers, the stuff of press invention, yes, but Lombard was said to engineer much of it, and I have to wonder, did all this change her materially? The woman Clark Gable knew and married in latter half of the 30's may have been very different from the one he first made acquaintance with when they co-starred in 1932's No Man Of Her Own.

Lombard did return loyalty. Three years after 20th Century, she used her position at Paramount to have Barrymore hired for a support part in True Confession, not a good picture but enhanced by what he could contribute. I looked at Barrymore's credits and noted two-years between 20th Century and Romeo and Juliet. Associates from the latter would speak of his struggle with dialogue. Reginald Denny blew a take when he applauded a speech (finally) done right by JB, cast/crew having gone through multiple attempts before Jack nailed it. George Cukor said he would have given Barrymore bigger parts had the Profile been able to deliver, but even most sympathetic observers saw it was hopeless. Watching 20th Century, and knowing this is a final hurrah, puts bittersweet aftertaste to mirth. I wonder how 20th Century would stack up in a revival. The play continues to be restaged, actors recognizing it as a splendid vehicle for both male and female leads. The movie might be something else for a modern audience. Is dialogue too dense and fast for modern minds to follow? The Capras get more respect, it seems. Columbia's bare-bones DVD remains all that is available, although Amazon does stream the film in HD.


Blogger Ed Watz said...

Edward Bernds was the soundman on TWENTIETH CENTURY. He told me that he believed "the play within the movie" was Ben Hecht's spoof of Hecht's own screenplay for COQUETTE (1929), which had won Mary Pickford an Academy Award, and for which Ed was also the soundman back in his brief stint at UA. Screening COQUETTE before watching TWENTIETH CENTURY can add to one's enjoyment of the latter.

5:50 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Those two would indeed make a swell combo.

5:54 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

TWENTIETH CENTURY was musicalized as ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY in 1978, a semi-hit directed by Hal Prince. The original production, which eventually toured with Rock Hudson in the Barrymore part, got a lot of attention for elaborate sets and effects involving the train. The score is pretty good stuff.

TRUE CONFESSION was ultimately a disappointment, but the main idea was great: A woman is falsely accused of murdering a lecherous would-be employer. She lets her too-honest lawyer husband make it case a self-defense (which he believes is true), and the trial finally makes his career. Then Barrymore threatens to ruin their new success by proving her innocence.

Leonard Maltin wrote a piece about Barrymore shooting a screen test for THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER. He was evidently way over the top, erasing any audience sympathy from an already outrageous character.

1:21 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Your cogent observation about actors' real personalities reminds me of the oft-told story that a despondent Cary Grant decided to play at becoming the screen "Cary Grant" and thus have the confidence in real life that he possessed in reel life. The Wolf, man.

2:30 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

The important thing about this movie is that on the very same sets and at the same time, The Three Stooges were filming WOMAN HATERS and I like the short far more than this feature. Barrymore is terrific in the film, but since English is not my native language I feel that it is more of a filmed play than an actual movie, and Howard Hawks has always been overrated.

4:30 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

The Orson Welles/Betty Grable TV version does indeed exist as a kinescope, albeit in b/w of an episode of "Ford Star Jubilee" originally broadcast by CBS in color (a rarity for CBS in the brief period just before they bailed almost completely on color out of spite for NBC's having won the color format war.) More information than you needed, but a reminder that I must contact my bootleg guy and get a copy. And thank you to radiotelefonia for pointing out that tidbit about WOMAN HATERS. Love knowing what Columbia sets the Stooges were reusing.

--Jeff M.

6:21 PM  
Blogger Randy Jepsen said...

I saw this on TCM last year and I was flummoxed. I just couldn`t see why it is considered a must see classic. I just didn`t like it.

8:04 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I thought "20th Century" was hilarious -- I'm a sucker for Barrymore going all out in comedies. You can tell, however, that the long opening scene was the studio's attempt to "open up" the play; it's quite unnecessary. And I must disagree with you on "True Confession". My wife & I found its sick cynicism quite contemporary and entertaining.

I know that people put down Barrymore's final movie "Playmates", but his performance is almost identical to that in "20th Century", even if the script doesn't compare. Like George Clooney, Barrymore's most memorable parts tend to be comedic.

5:42 PM  
Blogger Ed Watz said...

Barrymore is also terrific in two other post-TWENTIETH CENTURY films, HOLD THAT CO-ED and THE GREAT PROFILE. In both of these he's basically retreading the Oscar Jaffee character and apparently having a great time as well. There's a hilarious moment in CO-ED where Barrymore, in mortarboard and gown, is addressing the student body in a biology class. His hand comes down upon a textbook, the title of which is something like "The Mysteries of Sex." This takes Barrymore immediately out of his spiel and he mutters to the class professor standing next to him: "Read it?" "Uh-huh." "Good?" "Uh-huh." "Pictures?" "Uh-huh." "I'll take it with me..."

5:22 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer has some thoughts about John Barrymore:

Once upon a time, I was at the Fox Theatre, watching a Jungle Jim movie at a Saturday matinee. By some plot contrivance or another, Johnny Weissmuller was compelled to dive into a backlot pond fully clothed. As he plowed through the water in his khakis and boots, a father sitting behind me with his son solemnly intoned, “He can still swim.”

Now, of course, he wasn’t referring to Weissmuller’s being able to do that despite his incongruous attire, but rather that, for all the passage of years, the hero of his own youthful ventures to matinees had remained true to what was remembered.

Somehow, though, I don’t believe that anyone felt that way, watching John Barrymore in “The Great Profile.” The movie was about a great actor wrecked on the shore of excesses, and exploited Barrymore’s recent tour in the play, “My Dear Children,” which, we’re told, became riotously funny when he began substituting his own ad libs for the lines he was stumbling over. To suggest the greatness of the character he was playing, and his own past glory as a Shakespearean, they allowed him to recite the soliloquy from “Hamlet.” Barrymore had made his reputation in the English-speaking world with 101 performances of as the Danish prince on Broadway, and then again on Drury Lane in London. It would have been a poignant farewell, had his performance here been even an echo of what he displayed then. Alas, he also had a proclaimed talent for being able to cry on cue. He interpolated this into the soliloquy, with ludicrous results. Great tears coursed down his face as he recited the lines that made many all those years ago believe that he was a god set foot upon the stage. The effect was like Franco Corelli singing “O tu che in seno agli ‘angeli” from “La Forza del Destino,” while balancing spinning plates on sticks.

Barrymore was far gone then, thrashing about in the darkness of his life. This scene was simply something between him and the light.

8:02 AM  
Blogger Ed Watz said...

The scene Dan describes of Barrymore reciting the soliloquy from “Hamlet” occurs in his last film, PLAYMATES, not THE GREAT PROFILE. Evidently Jack's costar Patsy Kelly wasn't aware of his ability to cry on cue; years later she recalled the entire set being affected by his performance, and that no further work was done with Barrymore that day.

4:10 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Barrymore's Hamlet recitation from "Playmates" can be viewed here:
I have to disagree with Mr. Mercer's view of this scene. Barrymore plays the soliloquy as a man who is tired and broken down by life---his tears, which arrive over the course of the recitation, are appropriate in this context (and the context of Barrymore's life) and deeply moving. I have never seen a greater recitation of "To Be or Not to Be" on film. It makes the rest of "Playmates" look even more inconsequential than it was, especially since Barrymore's performance was otherwise very bad. He was tired and ill and this hampered his timing.

6:18 PM  

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