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A prototypical screwball comedy, 1934’s Twentieth Century sees John Barrymore delightfully chewing the scenery as a pompous theatre impresario who discovers and makes a star of Carole Lombard’s lingerie model. Having separated after several successful years, the former power couple meet by chance on the luxury Twentieth Century train, and it all kicks off as schemes are put into action, conflict erupts, and some religious bloke keeps putting stickers that say “REPENT” on everything he sees.
Barrymore is sensational, sending theatrical types up and orating floridly and dramatically, while Lombard clashes with him spikily. We consider how well Twentieth Century fits into the screwball genre – the dialogue is snappy and witty, the situations farcical, the relationships barbed, although it’s less of an even two-hander than you might expect, the focus heavily on Barrymore. Mike argues that the chemistry between the couple doesn’t play as enjoyably as intended, and that the bits of business on the fringes, and the knowing weariness with which Barrymore’s two assistants handle their jobs, are where the real joy lies. And José effusively compares Barrymore’s ability to move between stage and screen to Laurence Olivier’s, another actor renowned as the greatest of his day, but who appeared fussy and busy on film.
While it’s no new discovery, Twentieth Century holding places in the National Film Registry and the history of film comedy, it’s a new one for us, and a corker.
With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.
I went to see this for Rossy de Palma and it was worth seeing for her. She’s middle-aged now, a bit zaftig. She’s still got the wonky Picasso eyes, which evoke a memory of the strange and marvellous energy her mere presence once catapulted into any film, but can now pass for an ordinary working-class middle-aged Spanish lady, as she does here. The film seems to me a nothing; or to be fair, nothing I understand. It’s a farce in which Michel Leproux (Christian Clavier) is seeking one hour of tranquillity in which to listen to that great jazz album he’s been longing to hear all his life and finally found but gets constantly interrupted: his wife reveals an affair; the son brings in a Phillipino family to stay, the Polish plumber who is really Portuguese bursts the pipes, his mistress comes to reveal their affair to the wife etc. It’s very French and very sitcommy. I did not find it funny though the audience I saw it with could not stop laughing in ways that I simply didn’t get: offering guests at the neighbourhood party expensive wine got howls of laughter. I found the representation of Rossy de Palma as the Spanish maid, the jokes about the Portuguese/Polish plumber and the whole bit with the Phillipinos a bit crude and slightly racist. What it did make me think of is how certain people can just lift a film out of ordinariness and make it worthwhile to see and think about, like some expensive and exotic ingredient in a store-bought trifle. In this film it’s Rossy of course, who seems to be acting in a coarser, better film than this one — she feels slightly out of place; and Carole Bouquet as the wife, who doesn’t get to do very much but manages to express quite a bit and is so extremely beautiful one can’t help but be riveted by her mere presence.