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Twentieth Century

Twentieth Century (1934)

Wowza!

     I have heard Twentieth Century sometimes referred to as the first screwball comedy. Whether it technically was or not, this flick and its leading lady certainly embody what we have come to associate with the genre. Carole Lombard would reign in such nonsensical films, which make up what I consider the best of her work.

     In this “movie about a train”, as I like to call it, Lombard and John Barrymore are theater actors/director who spend nearly the entire picture making scenes by being as dramatic as any role they might have the chance to play. The latter half of the movie takes place in the small confines of a train, the Twentieth Century.

     John Barrymore plays Oscar Jaffe, a Broadway director, who takes an unknown Mildred Plotka and turns her into the star Lily Garland (Lombard). Our first encounter with the characters has Jaffe fighting to keep his discovery in the play while battling to get her to perform correctly. He uses chalk to draw the movements she should take during a scene to the point that an undiscernable amount of lines mark the stage floor. He also elicits an appropriate scream from her for one scene by sticking the lady’s rear end with a pin. Lily becomes a hit, however, and on opening night Jaffe showers her with praise and speaks of how above him she is now until the woman begs for his companionship, as was his plan.

     When next we see the couple, Lily is refusing to accept Jaffe’s calls and is throwing a fit in her lavish New York apartment while telling Jaffe press agent Owen O’Malley (Roscoe Karns) she wants to end her relationship with the man. When Jaffe arrives at the home, he solemnly swears he will kill himself by jumping from the window, but the couple reconciles when Jaffe swears not to be possessive.

     After two more successful plays together, Lily finally dumps the director when she discovers he has been tapping her phone line and has hired a P.I. to follow her around. Without the actress who has gone to Hollywood, Jaffe’s stage success falters. He is escaping a failing show and its related debt in Chicago when he boards the Twentieth Century back to New York. At a stop along the way, Lily also boards, with her beau (Ralph Forbes),  and unknowingly takes the room beside Jaffe’s.

    The two are outwardly livid as they learn of each other’s presence and put on big shows of distress. Jaffe plots to lure Lily back to his theater by offering her the role of Mary Magdalene in the passion play. Jaffe wants to make the show and is certain he could gain financing with Lily’s name on a contract, but she is not so easily won over. The movie closes on Jaffe drawing chalk lines on a stage dictating Lily’s movements.

     Twentieth Century is stuffed full of witty lines and little jokes mixed in among the fast-paced dialogue. A number of side characters also color the picture, such as the escaped mental patient (Etienne Girardot) who has been plastering the train with stickers reading “Repent Now” and driving some passengers to tears because of this “outrage.”

     Lombard and Barrymore play their characters so melodramatically that rarely are we able to glimpse Lily and Jaffe’s true nature beneath the dramatic shows they put on for all around them. Lily mourns saying farewell to her boyfriend before becoming instantly annoyed when he refuses to leave and instead travels with her. Lily and Jaffe have no redeeming qualities but we cannot help but love them. Both are too selfish for us to want either to get his or her way, but the ending perhaps gives them what they deserve: each other.

The Dancing Co-Ed

Gasser

Dancing Co-Ed (1939)

     I am often amazed to find the range of some actors’ careers in terms of the types of characters they play. Lana Turner, who would come to be known as a ruthless blonde bombshell, started like many actresses of those days in light-hearted stage-themed movies. The Dancing Co-Ed is a harebrained picture that includes a young stage performer getting her break in movies, a plot to dupe the public and the boss into thinking she’s a nobody, and some college romance to boot. The story is pretty original in its absurdity, but it makes for a fun ride and some enjoyable dance moves by Ms. Turner.

     When the husband-wife dancing duo set to star in “The Dancing Co-Ed” announce (via gossip radio show) that the woman is pregnant, the head of Monarch Pictures is stuck with finding a new leading lady to star opposite the male lead. Publicist Joe Drews (Roscoe Karns) immediately turns to Turner’s Patty Marlow, who has been a dancer on the stage. The trouble is, Monarch head H.W. Workman (Thurston Hall) is more likely to accept Patty if he thinks she is an actual co-ed who happens to be a great dancer. Patty, Drews, and Monarch secretary Eve (Ann Rutherford) engage a plot to enroll Patty in college, have Eve take her admissions exam and class tests (because Patty is not smart enough) and have Workman select Patty as the winner of a dancing contest held at one of the colleges nationwide to find that leading lady.

     While enrolled at Midwestern College, Patty opts to help the school’s ambitious reporter, Pug Braddock (Richard Carlson), search out the planted dancer that is in fact Patty, hoping to throw him off her scent. The two fall in love along the way and drama and chaos ensue. One can predict the ending as the close draws near, but it’s a fair one that comes with Turner wrapped as a burrito in a waterproof tabelcloth. No worries, Pug cut an air hole.

     It seems many actresses got their start in the song-and-dance features that were so prominent during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Although it seems today’s actors and actresses might be secret double or triple threats, musical movies are less prevalent, so one has no idea Ewan McGregor or Catherine Zeta Jones can sing until they pop up in a musical (or at least I had no idea). Back in Lana Turner’s day, however, it seems a lot of actors had a variety of talent to offer Hollywood casting directors. Joan Crawford, who would also go on to meatier, vicious roles, started in a number of musicals that had her moving her feet and flexing her vocal chords.

     Turner gets plenty of opportunities to tap about in The Dancing Co-Ed, and she truly is impressive, especially when shown compared to the many other dancers –both good and bad– featured therein. She is also young enough at roughly 17 during filming to pull off the college-student look. She made 10 films in her first three years in Hollywood, this being one of them. It was also in this picture that she worked alongside bandleader Artie Shaw, who quickly pursued the young star. Although he was initially rebuffed by Turner, she later accepted a date (after being dumped by a lawyer who wanted Crawford instead) and she was Mrs. Shaw by night’s end following a Las Vegas elopement. Things did not last, however, and months later the duo split –that same lawyer facilitating the divorce.

Source: TCM.com

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