Howard Hawks' TWENTIETH CENTURY: The Most Modern 1934 Movie Ever Made?

Howard Hawks' TWENTIETH CENTURY, newly restored by Sony, will be screened by AFS on Tuesday, November 15 at 7:30pm. Tickets are available here at at the event.

Again and again throughout his career, producer, director and (uncredited) writer Howard Hawks shook up the whole medium of commercial film. His hyper-violent early gangster movie SCARFACE (1932) set the tone for all future mob movies, and we can see echoes of it even today. He could plausibly said to have invented, and later perfected, the screwball comedy, first with 1934's TWENTIETH CENTURY and later with BRINGING UP BABY (1938), HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940) and BALL OF FIRE (1941). Later, with TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944) and THE BIG SLEEP (1946) he brought a new kind of bold sexual chemistry to the screen thanks to the Bogart and Bacall tandem. When he made westerns, they were well unlike any westerns that had preceded them, as is the case with the psychological epic RED RIVER (1948) and the loose amiable hangout movie RIO BRAVO (1959). This list leaves out many of his best films, but you begin to get the picture.

A screwball comedy is, roughly, a fast-paced comedy about romantic conflict in which the romantic leads are also the comedians. Before screwball comedies, there were almost always romantic leads in comedies but they were not expected to get the laughs too. That work was left to the comics, who would interact with the leads but would not be the leads themselves. There are other contenders besides TWENTIETH CENTURY for the title of first screwball comedy. IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT is a leader, and was a pioneering, influential film in its own right, but the leads play it fairly close to the vest. No one would accuse John Barrymore and Carole Lombard, the two leads of TWENTIETH CENTURY, of that.

Hawks cast Barrymore as Oscar Jaffe, a great theatrical ham in the old tradition. The casting could not have been more appropriate. Barrymore was a very fine actor of both stage and screen, and his arsenal was fully stocked with the techniques and manners of the true stage ham. Carole Lombard plays Lily Garland, the Brooklyn girl who becomes a vaunted star of the great white way, but begins to chafe under the thumb of her "creator", Jaffe.

Garland is a prodigy of the stage, and as such, speaks the language of the ham, and sees through Jaffe's artifice when others cannot. Their professional romance, its dissolution, and Jaffe's pursuit of her on a cross-country train voyage, form the story. Hawks manages the actors, and also the many skilled bit players with consummate skill and and a consistent attention to pace (fast) and energy (volcanic).

Here is a scene that shows the dynamic of the Jaffe/Garland relationship as it develops. Jaffe is preparing his actors for a scene in a hokey southern plantation-set play and Garland can't quite break through. Until... Watch these two marvelous artists at work here, and note how Hawks frames the shots to give maximum impact to their physical attitudes.

This same acting prowess and directorial discretion is displayed throughout the film, as these complicated, tightly wound artistes play out the dance of love, love lost, and, possibly, love regained.

This is a film that seems to move with modern rhythms, the dirty pre-code jokes seem like the kind that a quick witted young person of today would make. Hawks had no use for the close-up, which most movies and television shows today rely upon, but in terms of tempo and tone of gags, the material feels shockingly contemporary in approach.