Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: David Fincher’s Mank, about Herman J. Mankiewicz’s work on Citizen Kane, is coming soon to Netflix. Before it drops, check out these earlier films penned by some of Hollywood’s most famous screenwriters.
Late in Twentieth Century, which is generally considered to be among the earliest screwball comedies (premiering just three months after It Happened One Night), a minor character attempts to persuade famous actress Lily Garland (Carole Lombard) to sign a contract. This guy’s name is Owen (played by Roscoe Karns), and he’s nobody special—he works as an all-purpose flunky for theatrical impresario Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore), and spends most of his time sneaking liquor from a flask. From today’s perspective, though, you’d think he were on the faculty at some Ivy League university. “That’s not a contract,” he tells Lily. “It’s a coronation. Barrels of rubies. Enormous carpets for your pretty feet. Pearl onyx bathtubs. Slews of Myrmidons at your beck and call.” Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who wrote the screenplay (based on their own stage play), didn’t fret about whether audiences knew that Myrmidons were Achilles’ soldiers in The Iliad. Like many scribes of Hollywood’s Golden Age (or, say, the Coen brothers today), they valued historical and cultural literacy for its own sake, weaving it into even the goofiest of material.
And material doesn’t get much goofier than Twentieth Century, which Howard Hawks directs at what then probably seemed like breakneck speed (though it positively ambles compared to subsequent Hawks films like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday). The film basically amounts to a prolonged shouting match between Jaffe and Garland that takes place onboard the 20th Century Limited, a now-defunct passenger train that ran between New York and Chicago. Jaffe—a Selznick-esque figure prone to publicizing himself more than the actual artists in his employ—discovers an aspiring actor named Mildred Plotka, changes her name to Lily Garland, successfully woos her, then watches her become a huge star. After three years, she leaves him, weary of his constant jealousy and insistence on controlling every aspect of her life; without her, his career goes straight into the toilet. So when both parties coincidentally wind up on the same train, Jaffe hatches a scheme to win her back, professionally if not romantically. Unfortunately, it involves the assistance of a “wealthy investor” who turns out to be a cheerfully harmless escapee from an asylum.
Hecht and MacArthur based the stage version of Twentieth Century on another, unproduced play, Napoleon Of Broadway, which was loosely based on its author’s experience working for David Belasco. But there’s little chance that Belasco or Selznick or any other real-life producer came anywhere close to being as ludicrously pompous and self-important as Barrymore is here. The film adaptation fascinates in part because Twentieth Century’s two main characters are theatrical to their marrow; it takes a while to adjust to Barrymore’s and Lombard’s wildly over-the-top performances, which reflect Jaffe’s and Garland’s mutual tendency to perceive everything through a melodramatic lens and respond accordingly. (This film must have set an all-time record for actors running their hands through their hair in a pantomime of extreme consternation.) Yet the script’s precisely witty dialogue, with its plethora of now-obscure (and quite possibly then-obscure) references, remains impervious to the stars’ expert mugging. This is a movie that’s equally comfortable casually name-dropping Trilby O’Ferrall (as opposed to Svengali) and having someone silently communicate the word “Baptist” by pouring a cup of water onto his own head. “Where’s Oliver?” asks Jaffe, referring to another lackey. “You fired him,” Owen replies. Jaffe explodes: “Oh, he’s taking advantage of that, is he?” When you’re gifted with such repartee, every intensity level works just fine.