Tag Archives: Ben Hecht

Twentieth Century (1934, Howard Hawks)

Even with its way too abrupt finish, Twentieth Century is rare delight. Would it be more successful if the ending hadn’t wasted Carole Lombard? Yes, but also because it would’ve given lead John Barrymore more Lombard to act opposite and Barrymore’s best opposite Lombard. He’s amazing the whole time, but he’s best working with her. He aggravates him in just the right way. And, after time, she aggravates him in just the right way, which certainly hints at an amazing finish.

Sadly, no. Screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur kind of choke on it, though no doubt some of the fault lies with director (and producer) Hawks.

Anyway. Done with the negative verbiage. On to the reverse.

The film opens with a stage production doing a rehearsal; it’s model Lombard’s first attempt at acting. The director, Charles Lane, and the theatre accountant, Walter Connolly, don’t think much of her. They think boss and Broadway wunderkind Barrymore just hired her because of her looks. Just before Barrymore arrives on stage to take over the film introduces Roscoe Karns as Barrymore’s drunkard newspaper stooge, who’s there to profile Lombard. For about ten minutes, it’s just Barrymore going nuts directing Lombard through the rehearsal. He’s mean (though not cruel), manipulative, rude, and utterly hilarious. Barrymore gnaws at the scene, practically snapping at the air over Lombard’s shoulders. The scene starts with them apart, ends with them intwined, Hawks and editor Gene Havlick really focusing on how the two actors pace off the other. The air is thick with chemistry.

Even if Lombard doesn’t quite realize it yet.

Because Barrymore’s not just interested in creating a successful contract player in Lombard, he’s looking for love. The “seduction” scene is where Barrymore goes from being a hilarious tyrant to a personable, hilarious tyrant. The film has three time frames. The first opens the film; Lombard and Barrymore getting together, realizing greater success because of their collaborations. Then three years later when things have hit the skids. Then another three years later, post-skids, with one far more successful than the other. That last part is the majority of the film. It’s also where the title comes in—they’re on the 20th Century Limited, on the way from Chicago to New York. The first two phases have a lot of Lombard and Barrymore together. There’s some more character establishing with the supporting cast, Connolly and Karns in particular, as they’re going to be very important in the third phase, but it’s all about Lombard and Barrymore. Second phase is mostly more about Lombard. It’s where she’s got to show all the changes in her character over the last three years; what being around Barrymore will do to an intimate partner as well as creative partner. It’s where Lombard gets to let loose almost as much as Barrymore.

Whenever the film’s Lombard or Barrymore, it’s that rare delight. Barrymore manages to get more eccentric by the third phase, set almost entirely on train, while Lombard finally gets to match him. Much of the film is spent either laughing or grinning while preparing to laugh again. Hecht and MacArthur’s script does a fantastic job building up jokes, particularly in the third section, particularly with troublesome train passenger Etienne Girardot. Girardot is a great C plot, which ties into the A plot, but also provides some real texture to the train. He gives the supporting cast something to focus on, giving them their own story arcs. The film is always bustling, as sometimes Lombard and Barrymore need to take a break. They’re both very busy; in character and performance.

Connolly and Karns get a bunch more to do in the third phase, as they’re trying to save Barrymore from himself, which means intruding on Lombard, who’s got her own things going on with fresh beau and stuffed shirt Ralph Forbes. At some point in the second half, it almost feels like Connolly and Karns’s movie. It doesn’t last for long, as they have to involve Barrymore in their activities, but then it becomes the Barrymore, Connolly, and Karns show. Lombard gets downgraded.

Just as the film finally starts remedying Lombard’s reduced station and bringing her back up, giving her some great scenes with Barrymore, the movie stops. Maybe Hecht and MacArthur ran out of ideas to give Barrymore and Lombard something to riff on, but the film needs just a little more. Five minutes maximum. It’s not like Lombard or Barrymore give any signs of slowing, even as Connolly and Karns are literally passing out by this time.

But it’s a magnificent ride to that abrupt finish. And it works, it just doesn’t transcend.

Good editing from Havlick, good photography from Joseph H. August, excellent direction from Hawks. Barrymore and Lombard are wondrous. Twentieth Century is awesome.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Howard Hawks; screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, based on a play by Charles Bruce Millholland; director of photography, Joseph H. August; edited by Gene Havlick; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Starring John Barrymore (Oscar Jaffe), Carole Lombard (Mildred Plotka), Walter Connolly (Oliver Webb), Roscoe Karns (Owen O’Malley), Ralph Forbes (George Smith), Charles Lane (Max Jacobs), and Etienne Girardot (Matthew J. Clark).



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Nothing Sacred (1937, William A. Wellman)

Nothing Sacred is an idea in search of a script. It’s a little surprisingly they went forward with Ben Hecht’s script, which plays like he wrote it on a bunch of napkins and left director Wellman to piece together a narrative.

Fredric March–who has shockingly little to do in the film–is a newspaper reporter who may or may not have tried to defraud the wealthy of New York with a fake sultan and a donation project. Hecht’s script reveals so little about March, it doesn’t even make that determination. His editor, Walter Connolly, sends him off to investigate a dying girl, played by Carole Lombard.

Turns out Lombard’s not dying and deceives March for a trip to New York. She brings along Charles Winninger as her drunken doctor.

Hilarity does not ensue in New York City. Neither do big comic set pieces. A lot of Sacred feels like Wellman trying to justify the Technicolor expense and not knowing how to do so–he shoots the film almost entirely in medium long shot, with occasional closeups and then he blocks parts of shots for emphasis. It’s strange.

Lombard is wonderful in her role. The script doesn’t give her anything to do–the film runs less than eighty minutes, it might just be there isn’t enough time. March’s okay, but on the shallow end of it. Connolly is wonderful. Winninger is not.

The entire film feels truncated and too small for its concept. Instead of making it feel grandiose, the Technicolor instead makes it feel cramped.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by William A. Wellman; screenplay by Ben Hecht, based on a story by James H. Street; director of photography, W. Howard Greene; edited by James E. Newcom; music by Oscar Levant; produced by David O. Selznick; released by United Artists.

Starring Carole Lombard (Hazel Flagg), Fredric March (Wally Cook), Charles Winninger (Dr. Enoch Downer), Walter Connolly (Oliver Stone), Sig Ruman (Dr. Emil Eggelhoffer) and Troy Brown Sr. (Ernest Walker).


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Design for Living (1933, Ernst Lubitsch)

From the first third of Design for Living, it’s impossible to think it might not be absolutely fantastic throughout. Eventually it does hit a dry period and it’s impossible to think it’s going to pull out of it. Then it does and it’s impossible to think… well, you get the idea. I don’t know why I wasn’t fully trusting of Lubitsch, but during that dry spell, I really did think he’d lost control of the film.

The problem he–and the characters–needs to work out is a familiar one, the love triangle, but here with the added complication of the two male legs being best friends. I’m not sure how much of the solution Lubitsch got from Noel Coward’s source play (Ben Hecht’s adaptation only retained one line of dialogue and I can’t find any information on the plotting), but Lubitsch’s resolution is perfect. The film’s already over its bumpy period and it’s already assured he’s going to end it well, but the way he does is even better than expected.

The bumpy period–which probably only lasts fifteen minutes, at most, of the film’s ninety minute running time–is distinct because of what it lacks. The film opens with Miriam Hopkins sitting down across from Gary Cooper and Fredric March. The opening minutes are silent, followed by a minute of Cooper and Hopkins speaking French, then it’s the trio full steam. They all play perfectly off each other, so when the film’s without them–when it’s just March or just Cooper–it doesn’t work right. Hopkins works great with both of them, but they don’t work quite so well when they aren’t together. In fact, there’s a whole scene emphasizing that point.

Seeing Cooper and March–two leading men–sharing a film like this one, complimenting each other so well, it’s hard to believe they never reunited. The film only spends thirty seconds establishing the friendship–silently no less–between the two. While March went on to do a lot of comedies, Cooper only did them in his (relatively) early career, at least playing up his abilities as a physical comedian. Both of them are superb; hearing them fire Hecht’s dialogue back and forth is joyous.

What’s so frustrating about not knowing how Hecht’s adaptation works is in terms of discussing the scene structure. If I didn’t know the film came from a play, had I missed the opening titles, I might have guessed it. The scenes have a lot of dialogue and a lack of mobility–even if it’s a multi-room setting, the action takes place in the same areas. But then there are other touches–Lubitsch communicating the passage of time with an advertisement on a bus, for example–which are entirely filmic.

The handling of Edward Everett Horton’s character, a ludicrous suitor for Hopkins, is also rather filmic. Horton manages the film’s second most difficult performance (Hopkins having the first, having to convey her conflicted feelings for both Cooper and March in a constantly fresh way); Horton has to both be believable and absurd. The film makes a few drastic changes to the character to keep him in line for the narrative to work and Horton negotiates them well. He’s an amusing, antagonistic buffoon.

The film’s such a success, I’m a little surprised I hadn’t heard of it before. Between the performances–the pairing of Cooper and March and Hopkins in general–Lubitsch’s sublime direction (that opening is masterful), and Hecht’s script… Design for Living should be much better known.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Ernst Lubitsch; screenplay by Ben Hecht, based on the play by Noel Coward; director of photography, Victor Milner; edited by Frances Marsh; music by John Leipold; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Fredric March (Tom Chambers), Gary Cooper (George Curtis), Miriam Hopkins (Gilda Farrell), Edward Everett Horton (Max Plunkett), Franklin Pangborn (Mr. Douglas), Isabel Jewell (Plunkett’s Stenographer), Jane Darwell (Curtis’s Housekeeper) and Wyndham Standing (Max’s Butler).


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Upperworld (1934, Roy Del Ruth)

Upperworld starts incredibly strong–Warren William and his son (I knew I’d seen Dickie Moore’s name in credits before–he’s in Out of the Past) feeling abandoned by Mary Astor, who’s more interested in throwing costume parties than spending time with her husband and son. The scenes with William and Moore are great throughout, even after the change I’ll get to in a second… but it’s the whole film for the beginning. The scenes with William and Andy Devine are fantastic, even the scenes with William going to work are great. Upperworld sets itself up as a traditional story–successful businessman becomes unhappy with his disaffected life–and does it real well.

Even the scenes with William and Ginger Rogers are excellent, because neither of them play it as a romance until, obviously, the script forces them to do so and then Upperworld turns in to something else entirely. It turns in to a goofy movie with William running around trying to destroy evidence, pursued by angry ex-traffic cop Sidney Toler. Toler’s performance is ludicrous, but so is his dialogue; it might not be all his fault.

Where Upperworld was interesting and unique was the friendship between Rogers and William… the resulting changes to both characters (she all of a sudden has a seedy boyfriend, played by a fun J. Carrol Naish, while William becomes a villain–except for the scenes with Moore) do irreparable harm to the film. I also was expecting, from the opening titles, Mary Astor to either have a big part or a glorified cameo. Either would have worked well, but they went for in between and, while she’s quite good, her role’s dumb and unbelievable.

The first half was so solid, I thought I’d be more depressed by end of Upperworld (the last half’s badness simmering itself), but the film closes with Andy Devine and he closes it well.

Del Ruth does a real nice job directing too, which might have made the second half more palatable than it would have been without him.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Roy Del Ruth; screenplay by Ben Markson, based on a story by Ben Hecht; director of photography, Tony Gaudio; edited by Owen Marks; music by Bernhard Kaun; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Warren William (Allexander Stream), Mary Astor (Mrs. Hettie Stream), Ginger Rogers (Lilly Linda), Andy Devine (Oscar), Dickie Moore (Tommy Stream), Ferdinand Gottschalk (Marcus), J. Carrol Naish (Lou Colima) and Sidney Toler (Officer Moran).


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