“Barrymore asked, ‘Do you mind if I make a pass at her?’ I gave him the ok. I then talked to Carole and said, ‘For God’s sake, don’t say yes until the picture is over.’” - Howard Hawks on Twentieth Century
Twentieth Century (1934)
Twentieth Century - 1934 (Original Poster)
Released: May 3, 1934 Running time 91 minutes
Half of the eight films Howard Hawks directed for Fox during the silent era were comedies. Given his love for rapid fire, overlapping dialog and proven ability to generate laughs, it is somewhat surprising to discover that Hawks worked on nine other films before he finally got around to directing a comedy with sound.
When he finally did return to the comic form, he created one of the most enduring and influential movie genres with this “screwball comedy.
”While Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night” is often considered the first screwball comedy, it’s more of a romantic comedy with a few screwball elements. Hawks would go on to make three more classic screwball comedies, most notably “Bringing Up Baby,” while Capra successfully refined his formula for “Capra-corn” with Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith.
Based on a Broadway play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, “Twentieth Century” tells the tale of a self-promoting, egomaniacal Broadway producer named Oscar Jaffe and his over the top efforts to win back the former department store lingerie model who was once his greatest star.
Hawks immediately knew who he wanted for the role of the flamboyant Oscar Jaffee, his problem was trying to come with a way to get John Barrymore to take the part. He visited Barrymore with the first draft of the screenplay in his hand.
In an interview with Joseph McBride, Hawks described the meeting with Barrymore.
"He said, 'Mr. Hawks, just why do you think I would be any good in this picture?' I said, 'It's the story of the greatest ham in the world, and God knows you fit that.' And he said, 'I'll do the picture.' He never even read it."
Having landed his leading man, he now needed an actress to play against him.
Columbia studio head Harry Cohn wanted either Tallulah Bankhead or Gloria Swanson for the part. They both turned it down. Hawks chose Carole Lombard.
At this time, Lombard was considered an attractive but unexciting actress. Howard Hawks would change that perception forever.
During her initial reading with Barrymore, she maintained the restraint that had established her somewhat boring reputation. After this went on for awhile, Hawks took her aside for a little talk.
He asked what she was being paid for the film. When she told him, he smiled and asked her whether she’d like to make the same amount of money without doing any acting. Lombard was baffled.
“It goes like this,” Hawks explained, “What would you do if a man said ‘this’ about you?” He then whispered an outrageous accusation in her ear.
Lombard raised her eyebrows and said, “I would kick him in the balls.”
“Well,” Hawks replied, “Barrymore said that, so why don’t you kick him?”
Barrymore was absolutely innocent of this charge but the director’s plan worked perfectly. After launching a battery of obscenities against her co-star, Lombard loosened up and approached the role with the energy and brilliance that would make her the 30’s greatest comedienne.
Before beginning any future film, Carole Lombard would always send a telegram to Howard Hawks. It remained their personal joke for the rest of Lombard’s too short life. The telegram simply read: “I’m going to kick him!”
The sheer velocity of “Twentieth Century” is a tribute to the talent of John Barrymore, the blossoming of Carole Lombard, and the intuitive brilliance of Howard Hawks.
Director: Howard Hawks
Producer: Howard Hawks
Writer: Unproduced play by Charles Bruce Millholland
Play and Screenplay: Charles MacArthur Ben Hecht
Uncredited Writers: Gene Fowler and Preston Sturges
Music: Howard Jackson, Louis Silvers and Harry M. Woods
Cinematography: Joseph H. August
Editor: Gene Havlick
Costume Designer: Robert Kalloch Columbia Pictures
By following the life and art of Howard Hawks one can capture the true essence of the Golden Age of Hollywood, as if slipping on special lenses that suddenly pull away the grain and glare to reveal an unforgettable time of Movie Magic.