"I never thought I would sink so low as to become an actor."
A zany 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 old frilly clothes and quaint old aunt spinsters. Man I hate period pieces (pre-1920s) but this aint that: 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!
I mention the frilly old clothes because TWENTIETH CENTURY is one of the more self-reflexively psychedelic of all the old pre-code comedies, not because of any surreal montages (has Hawks ever used a montage?) but because of the way it explores the nature of persona, of mask-wearing, of "Who am I this Time?"-style thespian identity melt-down. 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 is redubbed 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, still under the delusion her name is Milred Plotka. "You're little Mary Joe. The scene is pure purple!"
Director is Howard Hawks working with a Ben Hecht-Charles McArthur script, adapted from Charles Millholand's play, Napoleon of Broadway, of which I profess to know little. I do know something of Hecht, who wrote SCARFACE (1933), a seasoned reporter with a rare ability to stare death and dysfunction straight in the face and laugh, wryly. Hecht liberates the Broadway-centric aspect Millholland's theatrical farce, blowing it out into the void the way Ahab might lob a harpoon at the vast white canvas of Moby Dick.
Death is all around in TWENTIETH CENTURY, as 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; in just one example he's contorted like his old silent version of Mr. Hyde, hands curled in pre-strangling mode -- only to lower them gently at his sides in the manner of a priest when said manager comes in and tells him a hick backer wants to finance his play "from a religious angle." In a split second Barrymore's whole countenance conforms to a benevolent sincerity. 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--though his was a most mellifluous voice (he was stunning onstage, and apparently did the best Hamlet ever)--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 Lovecraftian blackness of his impending mortality.
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 he's alternately brilliant and unfocused, but also very cordial. In DINNER AT EIGHT in particular he's amazing, preparing his suicide (a recurring theme!) with great formality only to emit this pained choked back cry, only for a second or two, before choking it back, as if still acting for some unseen camera and determined to be stoic to the end for whatever ghost cameras happen to be around.
As Oscar Jaffe in TWENTIETH CENTURY however, he is transcendent, as if arising from the grave of 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, 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.
Lastly, there's the coolness of the train itself. Why are train movies so cool? What is it about hurtling through time and space aboard a giant locomotive (hopefully in a first class sleeper) that's so awesome? Something about the soothing rhythm of the rails, a sense of freedom from the illusion of control and permanence, maybe. It makes no sense to be walking around, sleeping and eating dinner in comfort while hurtling through the dark on complete faith that there are tracks ahead... or steep mountainous caverns, tunnels, and other dangers, whipping by at incredible speeds. No sense unless of course you're already hurdling through the cosmos on a spinning rock revolving around a star, then somehow it makes sense, somehow the two sets of motion cancel each other out to create a rare space of perfect stillness.
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 right into the frame, 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 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 Joycean 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 and all the men and women in it merely players, 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 coils 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!
The tragedy is, don't go looking for anything else as good in the J. Barrymore canon, though you will want to later. Perhaps the only thing close is when Frederic March hams it up as John in THE ROYAL FAMILY OF BROADWAY, a filmed version of the play based on the Barrymore family which is, irritatingly, unavailable on DVD. True to the reckless juggernaut character of Oscar Jaffe, Barrymore continued for a few years longer than pop culture could bear him. He found temporary shelter as a foil for tiresomely wholesome crooner Rudy Valee on the radio, and played woebegone deans in squeaky clean college football/romance films. Don't bother with those, just value the madness of the film wherein he and Lombard broke the illusory difference between sincerity and manipulation, persona and self, character and living creature, to reveal the dark ghost in the moving machine, the momentum of a huge tube of iron hurling through mountains and over rivers like an unstoppable plummet into the abyss.