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.
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.