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Sony Pictures Home Entertainment presents
Twentieth Century (1934)

"I never thought I should sink so low as to become an actor. It's humiliating." 
- Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: February 21, 2005

Stars: John Barrymore, Carole Lombard
Director: Howard Hawks

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:31m:08s
Release Date: February 22, 2005
UPC: 043396106710
Genre: comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A+ B+CC+ D-

DVD Review

What is it about movies and the romance of train travel? Perhaps it's because the early years of the former coincide with the apex of the latter; it may go back to the very earliest days of silent pictures, when one of the first things audiences could see at the motion picture houses were images of trains pulling into and out of stations. But there's always been something majestic and glorious about onscreen train travel, whatever the genre—it's a period thing, perhaps, but it's a thrill to see, in everything from Some Like It Hot to Murder on the Orient Express. And the giddiness and sense of occasion of train travel were never handled better on screen than in the last act of Twentieth Century, a movie that may not be in the very top tier of screwball comedies, but one that's loaded with crackerjack performances, smart and snappy dialogue, and an array of talent on both sides of the camera.

Auteurism might well have been invented for the career of Howard Hawks, one of the great directors who hopscotched through genres with panache. Just two years before this movie he directed Scarface, and in the coming years he would direct sharp detective pictures (The Big Sleep) and Westerns (Red River). I've always been partial to his work in comedy, though, and while this is a very good movie, it's also useful to see it as a run-up to what may be Hawks' best pictures, Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. Here, he's working from a sharp script by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht (whose play, The Front Page, was the source for His Girl Friday); the director's deft touch is evident throughout, and he's blessed with two of the best and hammiest performers in movie history.

If John Barrymore seems like he's out of another era, that's because he is. He was one of the brightest lights of one of the great families of the American stage, and the family pedigree still has some currency, as Drew is his granddaughter. In his best screen roles, he gives oversized, almost outlandish performances, filled with knowing histrionics that acknowledge his status as a star while giving a wink to the audience—it's exactly what you get in a great performance from him in Grand Hotel, and he's in even finer form here. Barrymore plays Oscar Jaffe, the great man of Broadway—Jaffe productions in Jaffe theaters make money hand over fist, and Jaffe has more than a little Svengali in him. His latest project is lingerie model Mildred Plotka, whom he dubs Lily Garland, and vows to make her a star. In the first act of the piece, Jaffe turns Lily into the toast of Broadway in some dog of a Southern melodrama; jump ahead several hits, and Lily is now as much of a diva as is her mentor, who is mad with jealousy, hiring detectives to trail her and tapping her phone. Oscar loses Lily, not to another man, but to Hollywood; when she leaves town, Jaffe's good fortunes on the Great White Way seem to go with her.

Lily is played in merry madcap style by the spectacular Carole Lombard; her beauty sometimes eclipsed her comic skills, but if you've seen her in this, or in To Be Or Not To Be, or in Nothing Sacred, you know just how deft her touch was. The first two acts of the story (the screenplay was based on a Broadway play) are professional enough, but in some respects they serve as an extended prelude for Act Three, in which Jaffe and Lily find themselves on the cross-country train of the film's title. Can Oscar win Lily back, to star in a Jaffe production, to save his theater, and his hide? Barrymore and Lombard fabulously chew up the scenery, and literally, they're given the right vehicle for it—the passengers on the train are increasingly wacky, and include a lunatic little old man plastering every surface with stickers urging repentance, and a couple of desperate, bearded European actors who look like they walked off of a box of cough drops. Neither Jaffe nor Lily know where the histrionics end and their own emotional lives begin; we don't know either, but it really doesn't matter, because these two are so marvelously self-dramatizing, and in every respect, so thoroughly deserve one another. It's hard to think of an onscreen pairing that produced more sparks and laughs than these two, and it's a delight to go along for the ride.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The transfer is adequate at best, but the print used is really pretty poor—it's full of scratches, vertical lines wafting across the screen, evidence of decay, and it even appears to be missing a few frames. It certainly could have used a good cleanup.

Image Transfer Grade: C


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Very limited dynamics and some hiss and buzz; pretty much par for the course for a mono soundtrack of this period.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Japanese with remote access
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring Strangers When We Meet, My Sister Eileen, Flying Down to Rio
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Only some trailers for a few catalog titles.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

The technical values on this DVD are mediocre, and it's bereft of extras, but no matter: Twentieth Century is a delightful piffle of a screwball comedy, with two lead performances that are outsized and glorious, under the watchful eye of one of the great directors in the genre. It's been far too long in coming to DVD, so glory, hallelujah!


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