Combustible Celluloid
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With: John Barrymore, Carole Lombard, Ralph Forbes, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, Charles Levison, Etienne Girardot, Edgar Kennedy, Edward Gargan, Herman Bing
Written by: Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, from a play by Bruce Millholland
Directed by: Howard Hawks
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 91
Date: 03/05/1934

Twentieth Century (1934)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Rail Bonding

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Howard Hawks' third great screwball comedy is not nearly as well known as the other two: Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940). Even a 60th anniversary revival in 1994 paired with the much-loved It Happened One Night failed to help its reputation. Yet it's just as snappy, funny and cleverly written as any comedy ever made. Perhaps the reason for its banishment to obscurity is the two aggravating main characters, played by John Barrymore and Carole Lombard, as two egomaniacal theatrical types, he a producer/director and she a temperamental star. Oscar Jaffe (Barrymore) makes Lily Garland (Lombard) into a bankable commodity with a hit play, but after a screeching fight, she leaves him for the movies. Years later, nearly in financial ruin after several flops, Jaffe discovers that he's on the same cross-country train (the 20th century) as Garland. He attempts a series of underhanded ploys to get back together with her. The train, of course, is loaded with zany weirdos, such as the drunken columnist who follows Jaffe around and speaks like a fallen Victorian poet (using the word "foul" to modify his nouns), to the benign lunatic who covers the train in "repent" stickers. The film's 91 minutes are pitched at a high frequency, and the constant chatter may throw some viewers off. But Hawks was gifted above all at this kind of fast-paced farce, and somehow made it work without the aid of padding or rest periods. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur adapted the screenplay from a play by Bruce Millholland.

DVD Details: To the best of my knowledge, this film was never released on laserdisc and has only been available thus far on VHS. Columbia/TriStar now presents their new DVD with no real extras, but it's a very welcome sight nonetheless.

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