Twentieth Century (1934)

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 Theatrical style acting may seem outdated and laughable to many nowadays but it is a style unto itself.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, disciple 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.

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My Man Godfrey (1936)

She’s Electric, she’s in a family full of eccentrics.

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Does a comedy film actually have to make you laugh? Can you have a comedy without any laughs in it? This was once a question posed by film critic Mark Kermode.  When thinking of this question, the first movie which comes to my mind if My Man Godfrey, a comedy which I love but there are only a few moments during it which make me laugh and even those few aren’t big laughs. This is despite the movie’s crazy screwball, gorilla imitating antics in which the straight man William Powell enters a cartoon world. But I would still call it a comedy as it’s a movie which leaves you feeling melancholic watching it.

William Powell’s role as Godfrey exemplifies why he is the master of words. He can take any regular sounding lines and turn them into something memorable and unique – it’s like poetry. Even as an unshaven bum Godfrey outclass anyone. Likewise It’s easy to fall in love with Carole Lombard watching My Man Godfrey; she succeeds in playing a ditsy scatterbrain in an endearing manner but I feel the real unsung cast member of the film is Gail Patrick, one of the most underrated actresses of the 30’s – it’s a shame she never became an A-list leading lady. She became typecast playing (for lack of a better term) bitches, but could do so with a dose of humanity.

I love those moments which describe a ridiculous situation which is never caught on camera. The mental image of Carole Lombard riding into a mansion on a horse, going up the stairs and leaving it in the library is an image better left to my imagination. Many modern film comedies would show such a display for the viewer to actually see and well, would just be cringey and embarrassingly unfunny in the process.

My Man Godfrey wasn’t based on a stage play but watching it you might think otherwise as long stretches of the film take place in real time. Plus you get one thing almost unheard of in films prior to the 1950’s, an intricate title sequence.  I consider My Man Godfrey along with You Can’t Take It With You as the two quintessential “kooky family” movies although “kooky” may be an understatement.

Screwball comedy was partially about making fun of the rich as retribution for the great depression; My Man Godfrey is probably the harshest attack on the rich which the genre ever made, partially because of just how somber the film is. The opening scene in which men are living in a shanty town by a dump or the scavenger hunt for bums (or so-called ‘forgotten men’) are shocking sights for any era. However, My Man Godfrey shows how the wealthy upper classes are not beyond redemption and are a necessary component for any functioning capitalist society.

At the beginning of the film, Godfrey utters “Prosperity is just around the corner”, a line misattributed to Herbert Hoover though a widely mocked platform of the Republican Party during the early days of the depression. Once Godfrey is hired by the Bullock family as their butler he uses his newfound position to work his way out of poverty. By pawning the necklace Cornelia planted in Godfrey’s bedroom in an attempt to frame him, Godfrey purchases stock which Mr. Bullock had sold and in turn saving the family fortune. Godfrey owes a debt to a wealthy family for bringing him out living in a literal dump but in return, he is responsible for saving the family’s fortune and bringing the dysfunctional Bullocks together.

It sounds like the movie makes an argument for supply-side economics. Less subtle however is the scene in which Eugene Pallete (I swear that man is the spitting image and voice of Alex Jones) as the head of the Bullock household says “I don’t mind giving the government 60% of what I make but I can’t do it when my family spends 50% of it”, followed by his wife’s response of “Well why should the government get more money than your own family?”. At the end of the film, Godfrey has opened his own diner at the dump from the beginning of the film and hiring his previously homeless chums. – People banding together to get themselves out of poverty and not relying on an FDR handout.