Comedy Oddities: Twentieth Century

twentieth century indexCovering all of the films that Preston Sturges had a hand in has led to discovering some real gems, even if Sturges himself only had a minor role in the script, as is the case here as it was based on the unproduced play Napoleon of Broadway by Charles Bruce Millholland. But for once this is a film that I found disappointing, it’s a movie which has plenty of admirers, but I didn’t find it that amusing and though some of the word play is Sturges-esque it lacks his talent for physical comedy.

As with a good few of Sturges films it’s sort of a romantic comedy where the couple spend a good deal of the film apart, as stroppy theatre director Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) is convinced he can get a great performance out of poor old actress Lily (Carole Lombard) despite his producer not being onboard with her casting. He eventually does so even though it involves getting a scream out of the actress by stabbing her with a pin, and once successful the duo fall in love.

Skip forward three years and his relationship is rather messy however, with a paranoid Jaffe hiring a detective to spy on her and tapping the phone (which in some ways mirrors events in Sturges’ 1948 classic Unfaithfully Yours), but once Lily finds this out she’s had enough and leaves him. Without her in his life, and his productions, his next five plays fail and so he decides he needs to get her to appear in his next play, even if it is via nefarious means and methods.

Both of them end up on the train of the title, and it is here that Jaffe hopes to seduce her once again. Before this section of the film there’s some fairly funny moments involving Jaffe rehearsing a play, performing all the roles himself, and donning a disguise at the train station as he’s so in debt a thug is lurking around making sure he doesn’t leave the city. But once on the train the farce kicks in but it’s a frustratingly shouty affair, both characters argue an awful lot, and a subplot with a weird (and questionably mentally ill) religious fella putting up “Repent” stickers all over the train never goes anywhere particularly funny and only a few scenes with Jaffe’s long suffering two assistants lead to any laughs.

John Barrymore was an acclaimed actor and enormously loved in Hollywood at the time, yet while his deliberately over the top hamminess amused during the first half of the movie the character becomes rather tiresome in the film’s third act, and Lily not wanting to work with him, or live with him for that matter, is completely understandable. It’s also unlikely that the eventual outcome would have stood up in a court of law, but that’s a minor quibble given the film’s other flaws.

With a more restrained and less over the top performance from Barrymore, and a director who saw that people shouting at each other for lengthy periods sure does get exhausting quickly, this might have been a far more likeable piece. Even then the dialogue needed to be a little sharper if it’s to be remembered as one of the better screwball comedies of the period, and out of all of the films Sturges worked on prior to becoming a film director this was the one I was most disappointed by, it’s fine, but very rarely anything more than that.


Alex Finch.
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