(U.S., Howard Hawks)
“I despise temperament!”
What better target for satire than self-important, arrogant, delusional, selfish artists or, more specifically, the selfish artists of the theater. Howard Hawks’ deliciously wicked screwball comedy follows the rise and fall (and rise again) of the romantic relationship of renowned Broadway director Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) and rising starlet Lily Garland, née Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard). We enter the story as Jaffe is preparing a cast for a new production with a speech that we will come to know (though we suspect it as we listen to his overly rehearsed delivery) is his standard pep talk chalk full of love and harmony before his temperament takes over and to trample their egos. We immediately get that Jaffe is the worst kind of artist – an intellectually hollow hack who substitutes unacknowledged self-promotion with uninspired, vapid art.
Jaffe discovers Mildred Plotka at this rehearsal when his star quits and, though she has no acting experience and exhibits no discernible talent for the craft, he decides through sheer arrogance and force of will to make her a star renamed Lily Garland. Naturally they fall in a sort of love, but she grows more and more egotistical and he grows more and more jealous as his career goes south while hers explodes. They eventually wind up on the Twentieth Century, a cross country train, where the sorry remains of their relationship come to a head as Jaffe tries to get Lily to star in a new play.
The dialogue in this movie shines. Written by sometime-team Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht (with uncredited help from Preston Sturges), the screenplay is one clever line after another, further reflecting the empty-headedness of the artists they were lampooning. All they know is what they have read in scripts and seen on the stage. (Lily: “I tried to save you pain. I lied, yes, only to save you.” Jaffe: “That’s from Sappho!”) They are shallow people only exhibiting shells of emotions and have successfully tricked their theater-going patrons into believing they have something profound to say about the shared human experience. Unfortunately the public has (and still does) lap up phony highbrow nonsense because it all seems so serious and worthwhile, so it must mean something. They don’t want to be the only ones not to get it – whatever “it” might be.
Barrymore and Lombard shine throwing everything they had into their respective performances. Barrymore hams it up, milking his years of theater experience, to pump Jaffe up full of pose and bluster but little of substance. He is a man who feels emotions, but suffers from the delusion that he understands them better than the average person when in reality he hasn’t a clue. And Carole Lombard’s Lily begins the picture as a shy, seemingly decent girl who rockets to stardom. She has been groomed by Jaffe and uses his character and personality as a template for her own newly successful life. She behaves the way she thinks respected and celebrated artists should behave, but with Jaffe as her model so she is just as clueless as he is. They have deluded themselves into believing they are essential to the cultural landscape of the United States. This isn’t surprising; a lot of artists inflate their own egos. What is surprising is how easily people like this snooker the rest of the world into believing their own hype. Twentieth Century furiously and cleverly parodies not only these people, but also the rest of us who sing their praises and are blind to their intellectual and emotional emptiness. It sounds heavy, but it is nothing but fun.