Twentieth Century (1934)

Toronto Film Society presented Twentieth Century (1934) on Monday, August 15, 1966 as part of the Season 18 Summer Series, Programme 2.

Transylvania 6-5000   USA 1963   7 minutes   colour   16mm

Production Company: Warner Brothers.  Director: Chuck Jones.  Story: John Dunn.  Animation: Robert Branford.  Music: Milt Franklyn.  Voice Characterization: Mel Blanc.

Cast:  Bugs Bunny.

Greatest of all, Bugs Bunny.  No other character was so definite, well-controlled and morally strong as Bugs.  A quiet-living rabbit, he fought bitterly when roused to preserve his health, home and happiness.  Even more ingenious than Sylvester, his plans rarely miscarried and he sprinkled his activities with wit and sharp observation.  He was a master of disguise, an acrobat of genius and survived miraculously on a diet of carrots.  (David Rider, “That’s All Folks!” Films and Filming, March 1963.)

Several times an Academy Award winner, Bugs is directed here by Chuck Jones.  Jones seems to have reaped more praise from the rarefied critics than any of the other Warner Brothers cartoon directors and,, while I personally do not agree with those who single him out as the best, there is no denying his great talent.  Transylvania 6-5000 is typical of his work, in that it exploits the possibilities for fantasy of the animation medium.  Nothing is impossible and Jones’s free-wheeling imagination (and that of scriptwriter John Dunn) is given absolutely free rein.  The unexpected is piled upon the impossible until the viewer is left simply gasping.  It is not surprising that Jones moved in later years more and more into the completely abstract (viz The Dot and the Line 1965).  But in this period he was still using full animation, resisting the trend to partial animation and over-stylization that was blighting the animation field.  He did some of his best work with Bugs, of which this is a classic example.  Can you imagine what would happen if Bugs, the unquenchable “little guy” who remained unfazed by the most staggering opposition, were to come up against a rather pompous vampire right out of Dracula?  Bugs is deserving of a book to himself.  He grew into one of the screen’s great comedians.  He was the deceptively-simple bumpkin, who invariably defeated the con-men or the powerful not by chance (as in the case of Harold Lloyd or Harry Langdon), but because he was smarter than they were, a razor-sharp unsentimental intellect behind a carrot-chewing, imperturbable exterior.

Helpmates   USA 1931   21 minutes   b&w   16mm

Production Company: M-G-M.  Director: James Parrott.  Producer: Hal Roach.  Dialogue: H.M. Walker.  Editor: Richard Currier.

Cast:  Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy.

Stan Laurel, being an experience movie director, always exerted a profound influence on the filming of the Laurel & Hardy comedies.  It was said that in the early days, all the director had to do was stand behind the camera during the periods that Stan was on stage.  Whether this would be true in the sound era is debatable, but it is likely  that the early sound movies continued to be made according to Laurel’s theories.  He felt that it was essential for comedies to be filmed in continuous sequence in order that the gags could be built up and arise logically out of the situation (rather than by the usual discontinuous method of movie production).

They went on the set with a basic idea and an out line of the ‘business’ they were to introduce; but the main work of creation was done on the set.  The actual ‘business’ and its timing were worked out in accordance with the reactions of the informal audience of technicians and the like who were on the set.  Laurel’s editing technique was unusual, and made possible only by his method of continuous shooting.  The film was fairly finely cut as it was shot; so that at every stage Laurel and Hardy could see an approximation of the final version, up to the point they had reached in shooting.  The timing and editing of the final version was reached, however, only after the reactions of preview audiences had been carefully studied.  (David Robinson, “The Lighter People,” Sight and Sound, July-September 1954.)

This attention to audience reaction was in accord with Stan’s credo of comedy: “Let a fellow try to outsmart his audience and he misses.”  (op. cit.)

In Helpmates, we find the boys setting out to tidy up the apartment after a wild party and before their much-feared wives return from a vacation.  As John Grierson put it (in “Grierson on Documentary”):  “In this case, the meek are not blessed.  They do not inherit the earth.  They inherit chaos.  Chaos most active and violent and diabolical takes advantage of their inhibitions.”  Hardy adapted his comic characterization from a comic-strip character called Helpful Henry.  This movie is a perfect example of how helpful he could be!…   Incidentally, we wonder if James Parrott, the director of Helpmates and the Music Box, is related to comedians Paul Parrott and Charles Parrott (Charlie Chase)?

Notes by Ron R. Anger

– INTERMISSION –

Twentieth Century (1934)

Production Company: Columbia Pictures.  Producer/Director: Howard Hawks.  Scenario: Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht from a play by MacArthur and Hecht, based on the play, Napoleon on Broadway by Charles Bruce Milholland.  Cinematography: Joseph August.  Film Editor: Gene Havlick.

Cast:  John Barrymore (Oscar Jaffe), Carole Lombard (Lily Garland), Walter Connolly (Webb), Roscoe Karns (O’Malley), Charles Levison (Jacobs), Etienne Giradot (Clark), Dale Fuller (Sadie), Ralph Forbes (George Smith), Billie Seward (Anita), Clifford Thompson (Lockwood), James B. Curtis (conductor), Gi-Gi Parrish (Schultz), Edgar Kennedy (McGonigle).

Chico:  You red it.
Groucho:  All right, I’ll read it to you.  Can you hear?
Chico:  I haven’t heard anything yet.  Did you say anything?
Groucho:  Well, I haven’t said anything worth hearing.
Chico:  That’s why I didn’t hear anything.
Groucho:  Well, that’s why I didn’t say anything.
(From the Marx Brothers film, Animal Crackers.)

I do not consider pigeons birds, in the first place.  They are more in the nature of people; people who mooch.  Probably my feeling about pigeons arises from the fact that all my life I have lived in rooms where pigeons came rumbling in and out of my window.  I myself must have a certain morbid fascination for pigeons, because they follow me about so much–and with such evident ill-will.  I am firmly convinced that they are trying to haunt me.

Although I live in the middle of a large city (well, to show you how large it is–it is the largest in the world) I am awakened every morning by a low gargling sound which turns out to be the result of one, or two, or three pigeons walking in at my window and sneering at me.  Granted that I am a fit subject for sneering as I lie there, possibly with one shoe on or an unattractive expression on my face, but there is something more than just a passing criticism in these birds making remarks about me.  They have some ugly scheme on foot against me, and I know it.  Sooner or later it will come out, and then I can sue.  (From “Down With Pigeons” by Robert Benchley.)

The key to an understanding of this film is, I think, the title.  Far from being merely “a satire on theatrical temperament” (Peter John Dyer, Sight and Sound, Summer, 1962) Twentieth Century is more a satire on twentieth-century life.  It presents, in a series of frenzied comic tableaux, the very absurdities which underline our daily lives.  Nor is it exaggerated in any way.  The film is a mirror turned on our world and allows us to witness, among other tings, the rarity of true love, the lack of genuine communication, the overpowering greed for money, the impossibility of escape from social or business entanglements, and above all the incredible and insupportable speed of twentieth-century life.  We are also shown characters who have correctly diagnosed the situation and each in his pitiful way (O’Malley, the alcoholic, and Clark, the lunatic) has found a remedy.

If this film seems an essentially black comedy, it has I think, an extremely optimistic core.  The characters are shown as the victims of their environment rather than the manipulators.  Beneath Jaffe’s pretentious exterior lies a heart capable of genuine feeling.  Lily Garland is merely an innocent caught up in the inexorable entanglements of show business.  And above all Twentieth Century seems to be saying that human beings thrive on challenge and that the only way to fight a sickness is to attempt to understand it.

Although the theme of Twentieth Century is just that, the subject is really John Barrymore.  This is the definitive Barrymore film performance and much of the benefit to be derived from a viewing of this film depends upon an appreciation of that performance.  In Alma Power-Water’s book on Barrymore, Harry Cohn, president of Columbia Pictures at the time of the film was made, is reported to have said, “Turn him loose, give the public an eyeful, and we’ll see acting as we’ve never seen it before”.

Barrymore himself is quoted in the same book:

There’s enough ham in me to let me actually imagine myself that old fellow.  I didn’t have to act to be Jaffe.  I needed only to close my eyes and live over again the happiest days of my life.  The character was so cleverly written that I could actually feel the peculiarities of such a man–a humbug, a faker, and a ham; but through it all, a man with a heart and a soul.  We all live largely for effect.  Life’s a stage and we are all hams when it comes down to it, but we may, with all that, inspire others to achievements beyond their wildest expectations, as that old fellow did, in Twentieth Century.

In the opinion of Michael Ratcliffe (Films and Filming, February 1963) Barrymore’s performance is one of the most perfectly judged in the history of the cinema–“a display of rhetoric and hyperbole as remarkable for its hypnotic arrogance as for its hideous fluency in cheap aphorism an instant image”.  Although Barrymore made fourteen feature-length films after this, they offered, with the exception of Romeo and Juliet and The Great Man Votes, little outlet for his creative energies.  Along with a failing memory and ill health, drinking contributed to his death at the age of 60 in 1942.

Partly the immortal record of a great performance, Twentieth Century is also notable as the cinematic occasion which established Carole Lombard as a comedienne of ability.  Opinions on Carole Lombard’s work vary.  Having only experienced her performances in this film and in Nothing Sacred, I am perhaps not qualified to judge.  It does seem to me that her style is rather limited.  It is a style which tends toward the overemotional and its mannerisms become, for me, rather tiring.  Andrew Sarris, who considers her “the finest comedienne of the thirties”, would seem to have forgotten that Mae West, Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur and Claudette Colbert also appeared i Thirties comedies.  Nevertheless, her performance in this film under Hawks’ control is more impressive than that in in Wellman’s film (Nothing Sacred).  It might be said that Hawks, a master of improvisation, formed her style.  The actual circumstances are related in Hollis Alpert’s book, The Barrymores:

We were rehearsing the first day (Hawks said) and John Barrymore began to hold his nose.  I made him promise that he wouldn’t say anything until three o’clock in the afternoon.  I could see him getting very worried over her (Carole Lombard’s) stiffness, which came from her trying to imagine a character and then act according to her imaginings.  I took Miss Lombard for a walk around the stage and I said, ‘You’ve been working hard on the script.’  She said, ‘I’m glad it shows.’  And I said, ‘Yes, you know every word of it.  How much do you get paid for the picture?’  She told me.  I said, ‘That’s pretty good.  What do you get paid for?’  ‘Well, acting,’ she said.

And I said, ‘What if I should tell you that you had earned all your money and you don’t owe a nickel, and you don’t have to act any more?’  She just stared at me and I said, ‘What would you do if a man said such a thing to you?’  She said, ‘I’d kick him right in the _____.’  ‘Well, Barrymore said such a thing to you, why didn’t you kick him?’  She went, ‘Whnnnnah’–snarled, you know, with one of those Lombard gestures and I told her that he said that to her when he said such and such a line.  ‘Now we’re going back in,’ I said, ‘and make this scene and you kick, and you do any damn thing that comes into your mind that’s natural, and quit acting.  If you don’t quit, I’m going to fire you this afternoon.  You just be natural.’  ‘Are you serious?’ she asked.  I said, ‘I’m very serious.’  And she said, ‘All right.’

We went back in and I said, ‘We’re going to make this scene.’  Barrymore said, ‘We’re not ready.’  I asked him who was running this, and he said, ‘You are, okay.’  We made about an eight-page scene.  She made a kick at him, and he jumped back and started reacting and they went right through the scene.  He made his exit, and I said, ‘Cut and print it.’  Barrymore came back an said to Lombard, ‘That was marvellous–what have you been doing, kidding me?’  She started to cry and ran off the stage.  Barrymore asked me, ‘What’s happened?’  I said, ‘You’ve just seen a girl who is probably going to be a big star, and if we can just keep her from acting, we’ll have a hell of a picture.’

Carole Lombard did, of course, become a star.  Among the films she appeared in were Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith.  Her life was cut tragically short by an airliner crash in 1942.

One should not forget that Twentieth Century is a Howard Hawks film and, although the Hecht-MacArthur script is responsible for much of the sharply written satire and the driving pace, it is Hawks’ profound understanding of cinematic form that has prevented this film from dating in the way that many Thirties comedies have.  Most of the marks of the Hawks’ style are in evidence; the reluctance to cut, the arbitrary lighting (typical mostly of his comedies), overlapping dialogue, inventive physical action, confinement of action to a small enclosed area, improvisation, and the voyage or journey.  Unlike many later Hawks films, Twentieth Century has rather more of a plot.  But the story is treated by Hawks as a basis for what is really a series of action episodes.

To appreciate Twentieth Century fully, one must place it in a correct historical perspective.  Quoting Andrew Sarris again, the film was

“…the first screwball comedy of the thirties…”

“…a few years ahead of its time, and, as might be expected of a Hawks masterpiece, did not receive the popular and critical acclaim it deserved.”

“…the first comedy in which sexually attractive, sophisticated stars indulged in their own slapstick instead of delegating it to their inferiors.”

Notes by Robert McMillan

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.