John Barrymore: How to Suffer Nobly for Art

John Barrymore suffers for his Art. Image: YouTube
See how John Barrymore labours for The Theatre. Image: YouTube

We (as in, yours truly) have an affinity for outlandish characters – whether in real life on on the screen. One of favourite oversized movie characters is the fictional Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe, as played by the legendary actor John Barrymore.

You’ll find Jaffe in the comedy Twentieth Century (1934), a film adaptation of the play by the same name that was reworked from the unproduced Napoleon of Broadway, a play based on a certain Broadway producer.

Twentieth Century is about a successful, egocentric impresario who discovers a lingerie model (Carole Lombard), and casts her as the lead in his new play. However, after a profitable but tumultuous three-year business/romantic relationship, Lombard suddenly flees to Hollywood to become a movie star.

Without his talented and lucrative leading lady, Barrymore’s productions start to deteriorate, and he realizes he must woo Lombard back to New York if he’s going to become commercially profitable again.

Much of the movie takes place on board the spiffy Twentieth Century, the glam New York-Chicago train service that operated for 65 years, starting in 1902. (Get this: passengers actually walked on freshly-laid red carpet when boarding the train.)

As amusing as the train scenes are, our favourite parts of the movie take place in Barrymore’s theatre, as he prepares his actors for his newest production.

Our introduction to Barrymore’s character is a display board outside the theatre:

Mr. Oscar Jaffe announces a new play
Personally Supervised by Mr. Jaffe
with a typical Jaffe Cast
to be presented at the Jaffe Theatre
The Play: “The Heart of Kentucky”
An Oscar Jaffe Production is a guarantee of wit and genius in the theatre.

With such a build-up, we can’t wait to meet this guy. And when we do, we’re not disappointed.

Barrymore’s Jaffe has affected mannerisms, such as his use of a quill pen and placing a plaid scarf around his neck just so. He walks with a cane even though he doesn’t limp.

It’s worth noting that Barrymore’s hair is almost never under control in this film, which may be symbolic of his unruly nature. But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Barrymore is not impressed with Lombard's new boyfriend. Image:alkdj f
Barrymore (right) is unimpressed with Carole Lombard’s new boyfriend. Image: Acidemic

When Barrymore arrives at the stage where his actors are assembled, he delivers a Motivational Speech. In this speech, he tells us everything we need to know about his character.

“Before we begin,” he says solemnly, “I want you all to remember one thing. No matter what I may say, no matter what I may do on this stage, during our work, I love you all. And the people who have been through my battles with me will bear me out in testifying that above everything in the world, I love the theatre and the charming people in it.”

Oh boy. You know you’re dealing with a real piece of work with a speech like that.

His magnanimous stance is short-lived, however. When someone disagrees with him, he pronounces Judgment: “From now on, I close the iron door on you.”

Barrymore plays Jaffe with a straight face, but there’s something about his performance that almost winks at us. You think I’m kidding about this character? he seems to say. I’ve known dozens like him.

Barrymore’s Jaffe is smart and quotable, and makes a monumental display of his Suffering. For instance, when he’s told blackboard chalk is impossible to buy at midnight (!), he grimly closes his eyes as if summoning Inner Strength. “No cooperation from anyone,” he sighs miserably. “Never mind. I’ll carry through alone.”

There is much to admire about Twentieth Century – script, casting, sets – but we guarantee you’ll adore Barrymore’s performance as a self-absorbed egotist. If you’ve never seen a John Barrymore film, you must make time for this one.

Twentieth Century: starring John Barrymore, Carole Lombard, Walter Connolly. Directed by Howard Hawks. Written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Columbia Pictures Corp., 1934, B&W, 91 mins.

This post is part of The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Hollywood. Click HERE to see the schedule.




  1. Of all the Barrymores, I think John had the most difficult time transitioning from stage to screen. This is definitely one of his best performances. I’d love to see the current stage musical adaptation ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY with Kristin Chenoweth.


  2. It took me a while to warm up to the break neck speed of screwball comedy…”Twentieth Century” being the first. But NOW…I’m all about this movie and Barrymore gleefully inhabits this manic egotistical “impressario.” Lombard gives as good as she gets in this one. It is hilarious!


    • “Gleefully” is the perfect word to describe John B.’s performance. I agree, though – the first time I saw this, my initial reaction was, “Whoa – what just happened there?” And Lombard is a great character foil for John B. She’s a smart, capable woman who does indeed give as good as she gets.


      • He let his freak flag fly in the ham department in this film. But…..couldn’t Barrymore break ya down in “Dinner At Eight”? You watch a man just unwilling ( or unable ) to get out of his own way. The scathing beatdown Lee Tracy gives Barrymore in that film is well-deserved, but you still feel for him: ( “You’re a corpse and ya don’t even know it. Go get yourself buried!” ) Jesus! How much of art mirrored life and life mirror art was there in THAT scene?


  3. Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of this movie. I’d like to give it another try, because I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss a film after one viewing, but I must say I found it really hard to get into. The characters just drove me nuts, which normally doesn’t bother me with screwball comedies. Your post, though, definitely makes me want to see it sooner — I found myself chuckling at stuff you described that I don’t remember laughing at when I actually saw it. Here’s to second chances!


  4. This is a great post, thank you! I found my new ism, “from now on, I close the iron door on you.” Gosh, don’t you wish you could say that to some people?

    I’ve worked with one or two Jaffes in my day, as crazy as they are, sometimes they are geniuses 🙂 and I would not trade those experiences for the world. (Although, I would not do it long term.)


  5. JB is so outrageous and fun here – and as far as the hair goes – Donald Trump kind of reminds me of Oscar Jaffe – you know – hair by Trump, wall by Trump, sun, moon and stars by Trump… well, you get the picture. Dang – does that stuff make its way up to Canada?


    • Ha ha! “Sun, moon, stars by Trump” – hilarious! Yes, we’ve heard about the Donald T. activities here in Canada. I think the media is secretly glad he’s running for prez because there seems to be no end of memes, video parodies, etc. …


  6. I really, really want to see this movie! At first my interest was in Carole Lombard, but you review made me know that now I’ve got to pay attention to John Barrymore. As always, it was a fun and very informative review.
    Thanks for the kind comment!


  7. Fabulous post, and reminds me I need to see this again!! And yes, I love the little speech he makes to the theatrical troupe, essentially “pre-excusing” himself for all the outrageous behavior to come!

    Thanks again for this!!


  8. This film is the essential Barrymore performance (it should be preserved in a time capsule). He really captures the flagrant egomania and control freakery of the obsessed producer. Just his pronunciation of words–‘A-NA-THE-MA’ he shrieks at whoever displeases him–sends me rolling off the couch in laughter. Terrific post!


  9. I’m not a huge fan of screwball comedies, but if you like it, Ruth, I’m willing to give it a go! John Barrymore does sound like an interesting character. I’m thinking maybe I should give the speech he gave to his actors and actresses before they start the show to my family in the morning before they go to work so when I get annoyed with them later for not taking out the garbage, etc. they will know I still love them! 🙂 Either that or I will just shut the iron door on them. Great line! And great post!


  10. Thanks so much for participating in the blogathon. I’ve only just got around to reading the entries now, and I must say that yours was highly worth the wait. Twentieth Century is one of my all time favorite films, and John Barrymore certainly does steal the movie. I’m also a huge fan of Carole Lombard’s, but it’s John that gets the most credit here. He hams it all up. Now I must go and watch it again.

    Seeing as my Barrymore blogathon is over, I’ve decided to host another blogathon. I would also like to invite you to participate in. The link is below with more details


  11. I love John Barrymore in this – I think my favourite scene is probably his take-off of the ending of Camille (of course this was before Garbo’s film, so he is taking off an earlier version!) but it’s all fantastic. Sorry to be so late in reading your great piece on this, which makes me want to see the film yet again.


      • There must have been many stage productions of it … I just looked up Camille at the imdb and there were quite a few earlier film versions, including one with Valentino which is still around and another from 1926 with Norma Talmadge and Gilbert Roland which also featured JB’s father-in-law, Maurice Costello. That one apparently is a lost film (there is a nitrate but it’s in too bad a state to watch).

        Liked by 1 person

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