John Barrymore, Carole Lombard, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns. Dir: Howard Hawks.
Look at that movie poster. No really, look up at it right now. Does that look like an over-the-top screwball comedy to you? Does the name “Barrymore” mean that the poster necessarily must have his left profile prominently displayed in a dramatic manner? It must. Because it does. However, once you pull the wrapper off the movie (that was a metaphor, folks, I am suggesting that the movie poster is like a wrapper, you see), you basically get a Snickers bar (metaphor again, nobody’s handing out Snickers). It’s sweet and nutty with some nougat. Actually, I have no idea how to draw a parallel to the film with nougat. So just nod and pretend to agree with me and we will move on.
From all accounts, this film could have been something very different than what it turned out to be. It was based on a successful play that was based on a play that was never produced. The studio tried to get other people to write the screenplay but settled on Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht. Two other directors were considered before Howard Hawks. William Frawley was going to be in it but they went with Roscoe Karns instead. Several other women were approached for Carole Lombard’s role. The film almost had its title changed because Columbia was concerned that people wouldn’t know that the Twentieth Century was a train that ran between Los Angeles and Chicago. And the Hays Office tried to get them to take a bunch of religious jokes out. I have no idea who was first in mind for Barrymore’s role but there must have been someone since he didn’t even consider doing it until Howard Hawks asked him to read.
Allow me to toss in an ambiguous plot description. John Barrymore is a Broadway bigwig who takes an unknown lingerie model (Carole Lombard) and makes her a star. They are both well-practiced in displaying histrionics when it suits them (and when it doesn’t) and, surprisingly (sarcasm), their personalities clash. Then other things happen.
Both Barrymore and Lombard can hold their own against each other. They argue and fight on an even ground, though each thinks he/she has the upper hand. It’s pretty hilarious to watch Barrymore and know that his character is a fairly accurate representation of himself blown up to gigantic proportions. Barrymore knew he was kind of a jerk and nobody caricatured Barrymore as well as Barrymore. And Lombard’s performance is what made her a famous comedienne. She was not afraid to take risks and there were all kinds of risks in this movie. Walter Connolly is his usual Walter Connolly self, but Roscoe Karns really stands out as the drinker with all the wise-cracks.
I made mention a moment ago of religious jokes. I make mention of them again because it is unusual to have them in a film from this time. They are irreverent to say the least, and extremely funny. Had they not been funny, there would have been no reason to leave them in when the Hays Office came around.
It is said that this movie is what set the mold for screwball comedies. Maybe, but it’s so farcical, I never really considered it to be one- screwballs are typically more rooted in realistic behaviors and situations than this film. I don’t mind the classification though, and I won’t argue with the experts (expert= someone who is paid to do what I’m doing right now). The most important thing is that it’s funny. It really really is.