Overacting at Its Finest
John Barrymore in Twentieth Century. Simply put. Every once in a while I may stumble upon a screen performance which leaves an indelible impression, brings me new levels of respect towards a performer and to even write a review. That’s the effect John Barrymore’s tour de force had on me in Twentieth Century. Barrymore is an absolute beast as the egomaniac Oscar Jaffe delivering one of my favourite film performances ever.
Barrymore had earned the reputation of being a ham actor although that’s perhaps the nasty way of putting it. Theatrical style acting may seem outdated and laughable to many nowadays but it is a style unto itself. When Barrymore asked director Howard Hawks why he should play the role of Oscar Hawks replied: “It’s the story of the biggest ham on Earth and you’re the biggest ham I know”. The film even foreshadowed Barrymore’s own future as he himself became a washed up actor in the final years of his life like how the character of Oscar Jaffe becomes a shadow of his former self. Really has there ever been a more impassioned performance which is hammed up to 11 than this. Barrymore doesn’t just chew the scenery in every scene he is in, he devours it like a ravenous dog; he’s the definitive representation of the angry stage director stereotype. Just look at his breakdown scene when his Tribley leaves him for Hollywood, one of the greatest displays of histrionic acting poweress. Oscar Jaffe really is a fascinating character. It isn’t just enough for him to tell an employee of his theater that they have been fired, he has to tell them in the most melodramatic fashion “I close the iron door on you!”, or what about his constant comparisons to his present occurrences to scenes from famous plays or historical events. Half of what this man says is more melodramatic than Charlton Heston and William Shatner combined. Barrymore was known as The Great Profile and rightfully so; talk about an enigmatic screen presence.
The sheer energy between Barrymore and Carole Lombard is incredible in this ultimate battle of the egos; both of these two performers cross that line in comedy of playing hateful, selfish, despicable characters you can’t help but love. Carole Lombard herself has an endearing, childlike quality to her, getting overly emotional when Jaffe insults her acting ability; appropriate though since much of the film is two adults acting like children. The first portion of the film is comprised of a stage rehearsal, showcasing an impressive display of actors playing actors giving bad performances with Jaffe insulting them at every turn (“The old south does not yodel”) but it’s the film’s second half in which things really get crazy, taking place onboard the Twentieth Century Limited. When I first watched the film I found the subplot with the religious fanatic to feel out of place at first but trust me when I say the payoff is worth it. Twentieth Century is very screamy and very shoutey but there are many little subtle touches such as the establishing shot at the start of the film of a poster advertising the Jaffe theater (showcasing the man’s insane ego); possibly the funniest establishing shot I’ve ever seen. Also, keep an ear out for several references to Svengali, adapted to film in 1931 also starring John Barrymore. I also must give a shout out to Mary Jo Mathews, the actress who plays Valerie Whitehouse. She only has several lines in the entire film yet I’m intrigued by her; she appears to have star quality to her.
Along with It Happened One Night released the same year, Twentieth Century movie marks the birth the screwball comedy. I can never get enough of these films, they’re incredibly addictive and they always leave me with the feeling of wanting more. I don’t like to be labeled as one of those “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” people actually who am I kidding, of course, I do.