Review: Twentieth Century (1934)


This reminds me of some of my relationships, minus the money and the fame of course!

Screenplay By: Ben Hecht, Gene Fowler, & Charles MacArthur
Directed By: Howard Hawks

Comedy is extremely subjective, any discussion of a comedian, a sitcom, or a comedic endeavor put to film will bear this out. One man’s comedy is another man’s melancholy. What one woman finds hilarious another will look at with puzzled disapproving eyes. In all my discussions about movies I don’t think any subject has ever been as divisive as comedy. I have no doubt that my pegging of Twentieth Century as a tremendous comedy will be countered by someone else who found it bland and didn’t laugh at any of the jokes or scenarios. Of all the Howard Hawks I have seen Twentieth Century reigns supreme. It is a comedy of the highest order, and it isn’t your typical slapstick comedy. But, every joke, every physical scenario, everything about Twentieth Century clicked for me.

Twentieth Century is a very dark movie, although you wouldn’t know that if you only took it at face value. Beneath all the slapstick, the jokes and the outlandish behavior is a very dark look at stardom, destructive relationships and even alcoholism. Twentieth Century bears the marks of a great comedy that transcends itself because of how it is able to weave those serious elements with the comedic moments in such a way that the audience doesn’t even realize how serious of a tone the film has undertaken. The seriousness is hidden, but the way it tackles the destructive relationship between Oscar and Lily is handled better than most serious dramatic pieces would tackles such a relationship. Twentieth Century is a nuanced film that operates on many levels and never falters for a moment.

The comedy itself is hilarious. Whether it is the one liners, the physical comedy, the sight gags, or the wacky slapstick, it is all funny. It’s not gut busting funny, but comedy doesn’t need to be gut busting in order to be funny. Twentieth Century is actually quite subdued with the laughs, I never once found myself rising above genial laughter. But, I was laughing the entire time and every comedic moment worked to perfection. That’s what I want from my comedies, all I need is to laugh and to enjoy what is being presented to me. I enjoyed all of Twentieth Century and I laughed throughout. But, Twentieth Century provided a bit more than laughs because of how willing it was to go into the dark places. Laughter combined with social awareness doesn’t always work, but it worked in Twentieth Century.

Five minutes into the film you want to punch John Barrymore right in the kisser and for Carole Lombard to shut up before you punt her across the room. They aren’t annoying, but it’s hard to believe two people could be so stupid, self-absorbed, and destructive to each other. You laugh heartily at them, but at the same time you wonder how they can be so numb to the realities of the world. Miss Lombard and Mr. Barrymore are perfect for their roles and the twisted chemistry they have between one another is quite the sight. Walter Connolly as Oliver and Roscoe Karns as Owen are also perfectly cast as the sometimes straight but more often than not bewildered and flustered aides to Oscar. They could have been a movie unto themselves, they were that funny with each other and their surroundings.

Finally you have the director, Howard Hawks, who never takes the cheap route and goes the distance every time to get the biggest and best laughs. Twentieth Century looks interesting and it has a certain natural flow to it, something I attribute to Mr. Hawks’ brilliant positioning of the actors and the camera. He’s not overtly technical or extravagant with any of his shots or camera work, but he minimizes what is going on with the camera so that the focus is all on the actors and the comedy. A bravo directorial job from an already terrific director.

I can’t recommend Twentieth Century enough. I would recommend it merely because of how different it is than the modern brand of comedy. There are comedies today that I love just as much, and more, than Twentieth Century, but Twentieth Century is a different type of comedy. Its type of slapstick with understated social awareness isn’t present today and provides a nice contrast to the current comedy on film landscape. For that reason alone give Twentieth Century a chance, or give it a chance if you want to laugh, because I did, a lot.



Bill Thompson

2 responses to “Review: Twentieth Century (1934)

  1. Pingback: Movie Dictator Club: In Bruges (2008) | Bill's Movie Emporium

  2. Pingback: Review: Bringing Up Baby (1938) | Bill's Movie Emporium

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