I just love keeping up with tradition and participating in a recurring blogathon multiple years in a row. This is the case with The Fourth Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, one that has honored the great John, Lionel, Ethel, Drew, and the rest of the Barrymore family for nearly half of a decade. The blogathon has been hosted by the always wonderful Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood since before my blog even existed, and I wasn’t able to write my first entry for it until last year when I reviewed John Barrymore’s stellar performance in Svengali (1931). I originally wasn’t certain that I’d be able to participate in this year’s Barrymore festivities considering that two of my loved ones have birthdays on the 13th of August and I would be very busy, but I decided that my devotion to John Barrymore has no bounds and that I would write and post my homage early for this special occasion. This decision was made especially simple when I found out that Twentieth Century (1934) was miraculously available for me to review. It the first John Barrymore film that I ever saw, as well as the one that made me idolize him deeply in the years to come. It’s also among the most popular of his pictures, and with over two dozen bloggers penning entries this year, the odds of this awe-inspiring movie being taken were high. Yet here we are, and I couldn’t be more grateful to Crystal for this chance to pay tribute to one of my most revered actors for the second time!
If you couldn’t tell by my introduction, I am quite biased when it comes to Twentieth Century (1934). I can remember the first time that I watched it very vividly, as it was analyzed four years ago by Robert Osborne and Drew Barrymore (John’s granddaughter, of course) as part of the 2014 season of TCM’s The Essentials, a compilation and discussion of some of the finest features ever made. I recall sitting in front of my television completely entranced by every action that occurred onscreen, and it remains my personal favorite of all of John Barrymore’s performances and to me one of the finest pictures about the theater ever produced. In it, we see none other than the aforementioned and legendary John Barrymore as Oscar Jaffe, the overdramatic maestro of numerous successful Broadway productions. At the beginning of rehearsals for his newest play, he reveals that he will put his brand new discovery, lingerie model Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard), in the leading role and mold her into a star, teaching her everything that she needs to know about acting in the process. Oscar is ruthless towards his ingenue, rehearsing the same scenes for hours on end as well as emotionally and even physically abusing her in order to put her blood, sweat, and tears into her role. Finally, the curtains are drawn, Mildred is transformed into the newly named Lily Garland, and she is a resounding success.
Lily and her creator collaborate for three more years and three more smash hit shows, and become a couple offstage. This proves to make her life even more unbearable, however, as Oscar controls every aspect of the actress and her comings and goings, even going as far as to manipulate her by using her love for him in order to get more work out of her and tapping her phone so he can listen to her private conversations. Eventually, his abuse proves to be too much for Lily to handle and she accepts an offer to venture to Hollywood and become a star of the silver screen. This sends Oscar into a rage, and he uses striking ebony paint to physically black her name out of his theater and his life, vowing to discover a better actress and move on to greater triumphs. The years pass by, and we see that this is not the case. While Lily becomes just as successful as a motion picture actress as she was in the theater, Oscar has produced flop after flop and is so destitute that he disguises himself and flees from his debt collectors on the Twentieth Century Limited train. He quickly finds out that Lily Garland just so happens to be onboard in the room right next to his, and Oscar’s flair for theatrics kicks in once again as he attempts to seize the opportunity and convince Lily to reteam with him so he can put his career back on track. Will the two reconcile, or will Oscar have to use shadier tactics in order to get her back into his clutches?
Twentieth Century (1934) was made during a pivotal time in the lives of both of its stars, John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. I would find it a no-brainer to cast Barrymore in the over-the-top role of Oscar Jaffe, and apparently, I wasn’t the only one to think so. When John Barrymore asked director Howard Hawks why he should play the role, Hawks responded, “It’s the story of the biggest ham on earth, and you’re the biggest ham I know,” and Barrymore accepted at once. To quote the great Robert Osborne himself, “this is last important film that John Barrymore starred in”. His depression and notorious alcoholism had already led to studios becoming unwilling to cast him in their productions out of fear of his volatility, but Howard Hawks later claimed that he lost only one day of shooting due to Barrymore’s drinking habit, while in return he volunteered to work two days for free to make up for his indiscretions. He also stated that John cooperated greatly during Twentieth Century‘s production, taking direction well and making suggestions and ad libs to enhance the comedic aspects of the picture. He was even the creator of the Mark Twain-esque disguise that Jaffe uses to sneak aboard the train. Still, while Barrymore was a great success throughout the silent era and the early 1930s, the latter part of the decade would prove to be his downfall. By 1937 Carole Lombard, who had still remained great friends with Barrymore after filming, had to convince a reluctant Paramount to cast him in a supporting role in her film True Confession (1937). He would succumb to complications from pneumonia and pass away only five years later at the age of sixty.
While Twentieth Century (1934) marked the beginning of John Barrymore’s decline, it proved to be an explosive start in Carole Lombard’s career. Before filming, Lombard had only minor successes in romantic comedies that failed to showcase her acting chops, while offscreen she was deeply involved with crooner Russ Columbo. The two had plans to wed, and up until her unfortunate death in 1942, she called him the love of her life. Only four months after the premiere of Twentieth Century (1934), Russ was killed at twenty-six in a freak accident involving one of the dueling guns in his collection. It was a devastating tragedy for Carole, but critics claimed afterward that the loss added a much-needed depth to her subsequent performances that she had been lacking beforehand. Lombard would go on to star in hit after hit in pictures like My Man Godfrey (1936), Nothing Sacred (1937), and To Be or Not To Be (1942), but I’ll often remember her in this renowned homage to the stage as the terrified and pitiful Mildred Plotka, shedding tears of exasperation as John Barrymore, in all of his genius in the role of Oscar Jaffe, draws lines of chalk across the floor in my favorite scene. Twentieth Century (1934) is a true masterpiece to behold, a perfect blend of drama and comedy that can only be seen to be believed, and soon beloved if you give it a chance. Usually, at the end of my reviews, I’ll give my answer as to whether I would recommend the film that I am discussing or not. In this case, not only do I wholeheartedly recommend it, I implore you to discover what I adore about John Barrymore in a marvelous performance that you’ll never forget.