Tag Archives: John Barrymore

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 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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Midnight (1939, Mitchell Leisen)

Midnight is a rather smart film. Screenwriters Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder are able to do a whole bunch of plot twists–always through comedic means–because of how they’ve got the film structured. The film opens with Claudette Colbert arriving in Paris, penniless. Taxi driver Don Ameche takes pity on her and falls for her. There’s the beginning of a great melodrama.

Only Ameche loses Colbert and his subplot is about finding her. He doesn’t have any other plots, just that subplot. He’s not in the movie a lot after the first third, though he does come back in time for the finish, which is good because it’s why his name is second-billed above the title.

John Barrymore, Mary Astor, Francis Lederer and Rex O’Malley all get billed under the title, which stands out. They seem like bigger names than under the title billing suggests. And Barrymore’s a big part of the film. He’s the one at the center of Midnight’s actual plot–Colbert helping Barrymore keep Lederer away from Astor. See, Barrymore’s Astor’s husband and Lederer is her indiscreet companion. Lots of amazing comedy stuff from Barrymore. He’s got great material, but his performance is phenomenal–with director Leisen doing a lot of it non-verbally. Sight gags with John Barrymore, it doesn’t get much better. He’d run away with the movie if it weren’t for everyone else racing him.

Astor, for example, is fabulous. Her part–mischievous adulterer–ought to get old fast, but never does. Brackett and Wilder give each scene’s leads wonderful dialogue, but Leisen makes sure the actors without lines are doing just as much acting listening to whatever disaster is occurring or being avoided in front of them. Midnight’s never madcap, it’s never rushed, it’s always thorough. The jokes, visual or aural, always get enough time. In the second half, the film even introduces one-line caps to each sequence. It’s great–and it’s deliberately done once the film has changed gears a bit. Midnight is always unpredictable (at least in how Brackett and Wilder are getting where they’re going).

Lederer’s solid. O’Malley’s fantastic as Astor’s sidekick. It’s with him she gets the most to do; the script’s very much constructed to emphasize the comedy, Leisen’s direction–of Ameche and Colbert, of Colbert and Lederer–is often overly melodramatic. There are some gorgeous shots of the fellows romancing Colbert–great photography from Charles Lang–and they could just as much be for drama or tragedy, but instead they’re for comedy.

The “leads” are both excellent. Quotation marks because Claudette Colbert’s so much more the lead than Ameche but then again, maybe not. It’s almost like Brackett and Wilder took three separate stories–Colbert’s, Ameche’s, Barrymore’s–and squished them all together, only keeping the best parts.

Once the film gets to the third act, however, it seems like the magic might run out. The film’s pacing slows down to a real time crawl and it’s very hard to anticipate what’s going to happen. Then it turns out Brackett and Wilder had something ready for just the occasion. Fine cameo from Monty Woolley in the third act as well.

Midnight is a wonderful picture. It’s exquisitely written, smartly acted, smartly directed. The comedic range of Barrymore and Ameche is something to behold.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Mitchell Leisen; screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, based on a story by Edwin Justus Mayer and Franz Schulz; director of photography, Charles Lang; edited by Doane Harrison; music by Friedrich Hollaender; produced by Arthur Hornblow Jr.; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Claudette Colbert (Eve Peabody), Don Ameche (Tibor Czerny), John Barrymore (Georges Flammarion), Mary Astor (Helene Flammarion), Francis Lederer (Jacques Picot), Rex O’Malley (Marcel), Hedda Hopper (Stephanie) and Monty Woolley (The Judge).


blogathon-barrymore

THIS POST IS PART OF THE SECOND ANNUAL BARRYMORE TRILOGY BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Grand Hotel (1932, Edmund Goulding)

Grand Hotel opens with an expository sequence–director Goulding cuts between each of the film’s major players as they talk in the hotel’s telephone booths. It’s a brief, fantastic sequence, thanks to Goulding’s direction and William H. Daniels’s photography, but most importantly, Blanche Sewell’s editing. The editing of this sequence brings the viewer into the hotel, which never gets an establishing shot.

Goulding follows up that exposition with a scene in the lobby to get the present action started. There are two basic plot lines in Hotel, Greta Garbo as an unhappy ballet star and Wallace Beery as a industrial magnet down on his luck. Beery brings in a secretary (Joan Crawford) who meets a nice gentleman (John Barrymore) who is actually a hotel thief targeting Garbo. John Barrymore befriends Lionel Barrymore–their relationship in the film is consistently wonderful, anything with Lionel Barrymore (particularly he and Crawford), but the brothers Barrymore show off their talent quite a bit in their scenes together.

There’s romance, there’s tragedy, there’s humor. Lionel Barrymore and Crawford are the viewer’s way into the film–the problems of Garbo are entirely otherworldly while Beery’s such a creep no one would want to identify with him–and it turns out John Barrymore isn’t so foreign either.

Great acting, a fast script and simply wonderful filmmaking from Goulding, Daniels and Sewell. There’s a freshness and imagination not just to Goulding’s composition, but how he moves the camera around the actors.

Grand Hotel is a masterful, magnificent film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Edmund Goulding; screenplay by William Absalom Drake, based on a novel by Vicki Baum; director of photography, William H. Daniels; edited by Blanche Sewell; music by Charles Maxwell; produced by Irving Thalberg; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Greta Garbo (Grusinskaya), John Barrymore (The Baron), Joan Crawford (Flaemmchen), Wallace Beery (General Director Preysing), Lionel Barrymore (Otto Kringelein), Jean Hersholt (the porter) and Lewis Stone (Doctor Otternschlag).


blogathon-barrymore

THIS POST IS PART OF THE BARRYMORE TRILOGY BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Dinner at Eight (1933, George Cukor)

It’s called Dinner at Eight, not Leading Up to Dinner at Eight. I had this film taped from TCM and it was near the head of my movielens recommendations–and movielens has been frighteningly accurate–so I watched it….

There’s a lot of good acting in the film–I can’t decide which Barrymore is better or if Wallace Beery is the best. Billie Burke, as the hostess, is good and Jean Harlow’s got some nice moments.

But, really, come on. I can’t believe this one has the reputation it does. It’s not just that it’s stagy, it’s that it isn’t about any of the characters, just about being about them. And it’s too long. Way too long. And there’s no dinner. Don’t be cute, show me the damn dinner.

For a while, it seemed all right. Star-crossed lovers and ruminations about aging… but then it just got long and irritating.

I think I’m going to have to go with Lionel, now that I think about it more.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Cukor; screenplay by Frances Marion, Herman J. Mankiewicz and Donald Ogden Stewart, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber; director of photography, Williams H. Daniels; edited by Ben Lewis; music by William Axt; produced by David O. Selznick; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Marie Dressier (Carlotta Vance), John Barrymore (Larry Renault), Wallace Beery (Dan Packard), Jean Harlow (Kitty Packard), Lionel Barrymore (Oliver Jordan), Lee Tracy (Max Kane), Edmund Lowe (Dr. Wayne Talbot), Billie Burke (Mrs. Oliver Jordan), Madge Evans (Paula Jordan), Jean Harsholt (Jo Stengel), Karen Morley (Mrs. Wayne Talbot), Louise Closser Hale (Hattie Loomis), Phillips Holmes (Ernest DeGraff), May Robson (Mrs. Wendel), Grant Mitchell (Ed Loomis), Phoebe Foster (Miss Alden), Elizabeth Patterson (Miss Copeland), Hilda Vaughn (Tina), Harry Beresford (Fosdick), Edwin Maxwell (Mr. Fitch), John Davidson (Mr. Hatfield), Edward Woods (Eddie), George Baxter (Gustave), Herman Bing (The Waiter) and Anna Duncan (Dora).