Barrymore, Lombard and all the ham you could ever want
Jun 10, 2011
"Now don't be nervous, child," says Broadway impresario Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) during rehearsals to Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard), a New Jersey shopgirl he's just renamed Lily Garland. He has thrust her into the starring role of Mary Jo Calhoun in Heart of Kentucky. "You're not Lily Garland anymore. You're little Mary Jo Calhoun. The scent of jasmine is floating through the open window of a summer evening. You've just kissed your lover goodnight. You're full of...vibrations."
Lily Garland becomes a star. She and Jaffe have three hits in three years. Although Jaffe is drawn to shapely legs and mirrors, he and Lily become lovers. Then Jaffe makes the mistake one day of tapping her phone to make sure she doesn't stray. Before you can say "ham," Lily is in revolt and on her way to Hollywood by herself. She becomes a huge film star. And Oscar? It's flop after flop without Lily...until by chance they find themselves in adjoining staterooms on the Twentieth Century traveling from Chicago to New York. Can Oscar convince (or trick) Lily into signing a contract with him? Can Lily forgive Oscar? Will the "Repent for the time is at hand" stickers ever come off Oliver Webb's derby? Will Jaffe find the camels, the elephants, the sand for his Obermangau smash he's planning to have Lily star in as Mary Magdalene? Was there ever a faster, funnier and hammier screwball comedy than Twentieth Century?
John Barrymore was a great actor. He also could be a great ham. The two come together here in his ripe, melodramatic performance. He pulls out all stops, clutching his heart, staggering against a door, even picking his nose. When he lowers his eyebrows and glares, it's 100 per cent Smithfield. The screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur gives him some great, self-involved dialogue. Catching Lily kissing her fiance, he dramatically roars at her, "This is the final irony -- mousing around with boys after Oscar Jaffe!" Carole Lombard just about matches him toe to toe, and is much prettier The end of the movie, by the way, is as amusing as the start.
Key elements in the success of the movie are the character parts: Walter Connolly as Oliver Webb, Jaffe's business manager, always being fired, always making some terrible misjudgment; Roscoe Karnes as Owen O'Malley, Jaffe's press agent, wise-cracking and drunk; Etienne Girardot as an elderly religious zealot plastering repent stickers on windows, hats and people's backs, and writing bum checks. Howard Hawks directs with a fast and furious hand. Everything keeps moving, dialogue overlaps, nothing seems stage-bound even though half the movie takes place basically in one of two train staterooms.
This movie is over 75 years old and still plays as one of the best comedies Hollywood ever produced. Barrymore's hamminess is skilled acting. Lombard is gorgeous and gets away with just about as much ham as Barrymore. They're both just inches from over the top and they're funny, funny, funny.