Friday, November 20, 2009
Momentum Mori: TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934)
A crazy screwball masterpiece where for once all three of those words are stunningly apt, Howard Hawks' TWENTIETH CENTURY is a must-see regardless of its flaws and PS - it's called that cause it's on the train, the 20th Century Limited, that runs from New York to Chicago; it's not one of those historical odes to a simpler more morally repressive time that make you sleepy with all the trotted-out bonnets and high collars and quaint old aunt spinsters. This has John Barrymore as more or less himself, born under the sign of Sagittarius ("That's the Archer!!") harassing Carole Lombard, all night long, and her realizing they're both trapped within the confines of a frame that's both coffin and train car, screen-shaped hall of mirrors and self-aware image, but Jaffe at least pursues the illusion they can escape it any time, Hawks looks upon this as Hickey pipe dream and just makes maximum use of the space that's there before it constricts to a single dying light. The Dutch act, it's called. Theater is the only escape from death, but in TWENTIETH CENTURY, death is the only escape from theater, one step ahead of the sheriff.
I mention the frilly old clothes because TWENTIETH CENTURY is one of the more self-reflexively psychedelic and modern of all the old pre-code comedies, and the ponderous trappings of costume drama are clearly Jaffe's stock and trade (the first play he casts his starlet in has a character named 'Uncle Remus'); but the film is not at all stuffy Southern Gothic. It's awake and alert in the way it explores the nature of persona, of mask-wearing, of "Who am I this Time?"-style thespian identity melt-down, and how through this melt-down and this alone one can begin to 'wake up' out of one's life the way one wakes from a dream or is knocked from perfect communion with a film by the need to go to the bathroom.
Consider Barrymore's co-star, a young girl named Jane Alice Peters who changed her name to Carole Lombard, here playing a girl named Mildred Plotka who Jaffe gives the name Lilly Garland so she can play Mary Jo in Jaffe's latest southern Gothic melodrama. "You're not Lilly Garland anymore," Jaffe coaches his terrified new protege, like she's been coasting on the wattage of that name for years when he just christened her with it not two minutes ago. "You're little Mary Joe. The scene is pure purple!"
A similar journey of identity and origin blows in the wake of this speeding screwball train. It's from a Ben Hecht-Charles McArthur script, adapted from Charles Millholand's play, Napoleon of Broadway, of which I profess to know little, except that its based on real Broadway tyrants and that Alec Baldwin played the Jaffe in a stage version a few years back but kept the name of the film. I do know Hecht is one of my writers. He wrote SCARFACE (1933) and NOTHING SACRED (1937) just for starters--too great comedies about death. Perhaps it was his years as a reporter and theater wit that left him witch such a rare ability to stare the void straight in the face and laugh, wryly. Or maybe it was just that he liked to write on trains (back when Broadway artistes like himself did ride the Twentieth Century Limited back and forth from New York to Chicago and/or Hollywood) and trains give one time to muse and reflect and notice the way one's dim reflection in the window rolling through endless wheat fields begins to look like a skull, and time and distance blur and you can drink all you want without worrying causing an accident or being picked up for vagrancy, and all rich with meaning so that if you keep your eyes unfocused, you can see Death there, waving, right outside your peripheral vision, blurring by in the fences and trees along the tracks, the way a director might wait right off the stage during a show, biding his time...
Death is all around in TWENTIETH CENTURY. Oscar Jaffe threatens suicide (with sublime melodramatic flair) every time he starts to lose control of his actress or budget and the dialogue is choked with hilarious threats and insults, like "If he were dead and in his grave, I'd throw a rope around his neck and drag him on a Cook's tour!" But like some crazy shaman, Jaffe treads the lip between life and death in split second ham doses. Contorted like his old silent version of Mr. Hyde with hands curled in pre-strangling mode one moment, lowering them them gently at his sides in the manner of a priest to meet a backer that wants to finance his play "from a religious angle" the next. In a split second after split second, Barrymore's whole soul morphs and erupts into entire plays worth of indelible moments bashed together in long single shot takes where Hawks just uses the edges of the image as the train dimensions and lets these cats with their tails tied together have at it. It's ham-shamanistic alchemy, and the great, dark self-reflexive material brings out a full-on dose of Barrymore mania...kind of like what Robin Williams pulls off sporadically as the voice of the genie in ALADDIN or the TERMINATOR 2000 model dying in a molten pool of steel. A tale, ultimately, of a doomed impresario hurtling ever forward into the void, we wouldn't see a better locomotive-character/fearlessly self-depth-plumbing actor combo until Jon Voight's crazed escaped convict in RUNAWAY TRAIN.
It may be hard to believe for modern audiences, but Barrymore played romantic leads in silent films (he was known as the "Great Profile"), but with the coming of sound he was already "washed up," an alcoholic for whom coherence was a matter of some effort and little regard. CENTURY was amongst his post-code last gasps, proving he could definitely be counted on to play himself, a gentlemanly but hopeless drunk with sporadic moments of genius clarity peppered through his UNDER THE VOLCANO-like staring contests with the onrushing blackness.
He brought plenty of tragedy as the debauched, broke count wooing Greta Garbo in GRAND HOTEL (1932); was a believably mentally ill father returned from the asylum to re-connect with daughter Kate Hepburn in A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT (1932); brokenhearted that Trilby doesn't love him as a hammy SVENGALI (1931); and like a gut-crushing portrait of me in the early 90s as a suicidal alcoholic movie star dealing with his much younger paramour named Paula in DINNER AT EIGHT (1933 - left). In all these, among his only good films of the sound era, he's alternately brilliant and unfocused, cordial and disoriented. In DINNER AT EIGHT in particular he's amazing, preparing his suicide with great formality only to emit this pained choked sob, just one, which he chokes back, for whatever ghost cameras happen to be around.
As Oscar Jaffe in TWENTIETH CENTURY however, he is transcendent, as if arising from his suicide hotel grave in DINNER AT EIGHT for one final phoenix expenditure. Imagine an alternative ending for SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), wherein Norma Desmond convinces DeMille to make Salome, bending reality to accommodate her grandiose self-image by, say, her playing both herself, Von Stroheim, William Holden, the dead chimp and even Billy Wilder in a frenzied audition, channeling the spirits of every Broadway and Hollywood has-been and vindicating their endless struggles against death, disease, age, and--worst of all--obscurity.
Good as that might be, Barrymore is better.
Then there's the light and shadow aspect of the film, deep shadows Hawks absorbed back in SCARFACE that allows the relatively cramped train sets to appear deeper than they are. At the end, after Jaffe's been shot and lies "dying" in the middle of his compartment the lights are dimmed for perfect mood and suddenly we too are swept up in the drama of it all. With everyone crying over the fallen Jaffe as he reaches into the approaching darkness for one last contract to get Lily to sign, you get the feeling that everyone is moving into a place of perfect freedom. In dramatizing death, we defeat it. With opened eyes you can see that these images from decades ago are alive; they know you are looking, watching, and so it is that our mind animates the world of other minds, like they've conjured a rip in the screen via this self-reflexive celebration of ham acting and the power of pretend death to grant eternal life. The darkness of an empty theater becomes reflected now in every depth-filled shadow. As the stickers the crazy backer spreads around the train read: Repent, for the time is at hand! It's a Jaffe production!
It may be the healthiest choice of all to live in a state of constant morbid obsession, keeping reality forever at bay through constant play-acting, a kind of forward momentum mori. Or maybe it's just that TWENTIETH CENTURY was my first post-modern art wake up call, the slap in the face of aesthetic arrest; the first time the curtain pulled back for me and I realized that not only is all the world a stage, but every action and reaction is properly blocked (with chalk) by some unseen guiding hand. Are we our own Oscar Jaffes, coming from a place far in our future, bedeviling our present time/space-anchored cast of selves with outrageous stage directions from a place on high? Get free of your superego's incessant whining, open your mind and grab hold of Barrymore's coattails as he rides into the valley of the shadow of death at a mad gallop!