Twentieth Century is a screwball comedy in which John Barrymore is Oscar Jaffe, a hyper-successful Broadway producer whose ego knows no bounds. He has a flair for histrionics and uses his dramatic talent to manufacture drama off-stage in order to aid it on-stage… and to control others. The film begins with a problem at rehearsals for his new play: the leading actress can’t act… because she’s a lingerie model who has never acted in her life. It’s a gambit that only a lunatic would attempt. Something that would have people screaming “genius” if it were to work, forgetting that lunacy plus luck is nothing of the sort!
With Jaffe’s controlling “help”, the model (Carole Lombard) does become a great actress. At his behest, she has changed her name to Lily Garland. Stage names are fine but Jaffe’s obsessive control goes far beyond that. They’ve been involved romantically as well as professionally, so Garland is never unseen by Jaffe’s eagle eye. He’ll never let her break free if he can manipulate her feelings for him or somehow con her into signing up to a new play.
Much of the comedy in Twentieth Century stems from the hysteria, mood swings and outright insanity of Jaffe. John Barrymore is immensely entertaining as the mercurial producer, going far beyond the adequate to give us a man who is absolutely serious and believes every crazy thing he says. What we get is a character who is so lost in his own world that there’s nothing left of him beyond the dramatic. Aiding him in his schemes are two lackeys: accountant Oliver Webb (Walter Connolly) and stooge Owen O’Malley (Roscoe Karns). Both are lively and entertaining, especially Connolly who has more to do. Carole Lombard shows off her talent for comedy, putting in a strong performance, albeit one that seems a little mechanical in its mania from time to time.
While often funny, Twentieth Century never quite grabbed me the way this kind of comedy should. There are some superb scenes (usually with Barrymore in some wild frenzy) but they’re not always linked together so as to sustain momentum. They are separate scenes and it very much feels like it. Sometimes I found myself really sucked in (usually Barrymore again) but then the action would jump to somewhere else and I’d be keenly aware of myself as an observer and my thoughts beyond the film (like wondering when it would be over and hoping the next one would be better). This unevenness works against it so even though it can be very funny and Barrymore’s performance is a very high highlight, I’m inclined to reserve recommendation for fans of thirties screwball comedies. It’s one of the earlier ones and didn’t get everything right. I can’t imagine many people disliking it or not being entertained but it doesn’t come close to reaching the insane highs of its lead character.