Here, then, is where it all began and it's not surprising that we can thank Howard Hawks for it. While some film historians may argue over what actually constitutes the first 1940s film noir, there is far less debate surrounding another popular genre that saw its greatest successes a decade earlier: Screwball. Its masterpieces are well known and roll off the cineaste's tongue. Bringing Up Baby, The Awful Truth, It Happened One Night, His Girl Friday, The Lady Eve all arrived before America's entrance into World War II essentially halted the genre in its tracks, only to be replaced by noir a few years later, dark urban myths that postwar audiences craved as much as Depression-era audiences delighted to Cary Grant's artless buffoonery and artful deceptions. But why the screwball comedy came about requires a far more complex answer than when few dispute that Twentieth Century (1934), Howard Hawks' raucous tale of star-crossed, train-bound theatrical lovers, gave moviegoers their first glimpse of what would become Hollywood's grand, romantic madhouse. John Barrymore stars as Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe, a svengali with a winning streak as long as the Great White Way itself, which means he considers himself infallible when it comes to uncovering new talent. This time, it's Mildred Plotke (Carole Lombard), who's slated to star in Jaffe's latest play, a creaky Old South melodrama. Director Max Jacobs (Charles Lane) is convinced Ms. Plotke doesn't have what it takes, but Jaffe who's re-christened his new discovery "Lily Garland" practically browbeats her in rehearsal until he makes her a star. A romance blossoms over the next three years (and several hit plays), but Jaffe's pathological jealousy drives Lily to Hollywood, where she finds even more success in motion pictures while Jaffe's subsequent productions bomb. Thus, when he finds himself on the Twentieth Century Limited with ex-lover Lily, Jaffe wastes little time. With the help of cohorts Walter (Oliver Webb) and Roscoe (Owen O'Malley), there are few measures he won't resort to if it means getting his shining star's name on a new contract before the train reaches New York.
* * *
It may contain the genetic code of all screwball comedies that followed, but Twentieth Century does not necessarily adhere every last one of the genre's supposed tenants. For starters, a key element of screwball insists that as opposed to a melodrama or a shameless sex comedy it is the woman who is the sexual aggressor, and a great deal of the humor arises from the fact that she pursues the man through all manner of awkward situations. Such is true in basic templates such as The Lady Eve and Bringing Up Baby. And yet, what Twentieth Century underscores is something far more central to the comedy of 1930s moviehouses: the idea of sexual equality. The mere fact that a great Broadway producer such as Oscar Jaffe has been condemned to a string of box-office fiascoes after his star Lily Garland runs off to California doesn't merely reveal that his plays require a popular star. Rather, her presence (or lack thereof) in his life is powerful enough to undermine his own talent, and the fact that he desperately wants her before the footlights again makes it perfectly clear that he regards her as his equal, even if he can't bear to say as much. As for Lily, while she may not be sexually aggressive, there is little doubt that she is sexually liberated the initial breakdown of her three-year relationship with Jaffe centers around the fact that she wants to have a night on the town in a slinky new dress, which is something her svengali won't stand for. Those familiar with the Production Code will quickly note that Twentieth Century was shot before the Hayes Office took power: Lombard appears early on in a slinky bra and shorts, while in two other scenes she clearly isn't wearing a bra at all a curious overlap, since the institution of the Code arguably contributed to the screwball genre's calculated sexual banter. That it came from the prolific Howard Hawks' is not as astonishing in retrospect, since the director had already redefined the gangster genre with 1932's Scarface and would prove himself equally adept over his long career with comedies, action films, noir, and westerns. And thanks to the acrid screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (with uncredited assistance from Preston Sturges), the fact that nobody on screen is all that likable doesn't matter all that much. There would be better screwballs, but not many. And all would owe a debt to this one.
Columbia TriStar presents Twentieth Century in a good full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from a black-and-white source-print that shows a limited amount of collateral wear and solid low-contrast details, while the monaural audio (DD 2.0) is clear and intelligible with barely a hint of ambient noise. Bonus trailers, keep-case.