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USA 1934
Directed by
Howard Hawks
91 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Twentieth Century

Howard Hawks’ film is one of the best and arguably the funniest result of the 1930s' taste for screwball comedies. The fine script by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, as well as other writers including an uncredited Preston Sturges, was based on the hit play, 'Napoleon On Broadway', by Charles Bruce Millholland and tells the story of a Svengalian Broadway producer, Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore), the Napoleon of the title, whose protégé and mistress Lily Garland (Carole Lombard), a former lingerie model whose real name was Mildred Plotka, breaks free of his control and becomes a Hollywood star. His fortunes decline and he needs her help to revive his career. Coincidentally they meet aboard the Twentieth Century Limited bound from Chicago to NYC. 

Most of the action takes place on the fast-moving train, a perfectly apt setting for the cracking dialogue with a seven minute verbal battle between Oscar and Lily being outstanding (albeit somewhat marred by the crude editing).  Barrymore whose career in film began in 1912 hams it up mercilessly as the histrionic impresario and Lombard matches him blow-for-blow. The pair are aided by Roscoe Karns as a boozing press agent, Walter Connoll as Jaffe’s business manager and Etienne Girardot in an amusing turn as a religious maniac.

The ending is a perhaps a little disappointing as it simply reworks the opening section rather than attempting the Biblical epic adumbrated by Oscar in his flight of fancy on the train but even so no-one is likely to feel short-changed in the amusement department.




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