Howard Hawks, who directed the movie you will see tonight, claimed that it was the first of the screwball comedies. “Before this,” he said, “they didn’t have leading men and leading women make damn fools of themselves like they did in that picture.” Whether or not the claim is true (Capra’s It Happened One Night could have a claim to the title, and it was released just as this movie went into production) Twentieth Century marked a turning point in Carole Lombard’s career. She learned to play comedy in this role, just like her character in the film, Lily Garland, learns to act. The kind of films that Hawks would make later – the comedies, the speedy dialogue, the brash love stories like Bringing Up Baby (Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn), His Girl Friday (Grant again, with Rosalind Russell), Ball of Fire (Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck), or To Have And Have Not (Bogart and Bacall) – all of them have their roots in Twentieth Century.
The story started as an unproduced play about a Broadway impresario by Charles Bruce Mulholland. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who had had a hit with their comedy about Chicago reporters, The Front Page, had reworked it into a play that opened on Broadway in 1932. Hawks wanted, first, a prologue that would explain how the producer and his star had met, worked together, and broken up before the action on the train (the “Twentieth Century” of the title), and second, a heroine of the working class (a former lingerie model), to replace the grand lady/great actress who was the female lead in the play. Hecht and MacArthur incorporated these changes in the screenplay they wrote.
Lombard and Hawks were second cousins but he knew little about her. For the twenty-five year old actress the prospect of acting opposite John Barrymore, who was not a major box-office draw at the time but whose career as an actor was probably more well known than any one else’s in America, was daunting, to say the least. Hawks got Lombard over her initial stilted overacting by getting her to relax. “Do any damn thing that comes into your mind that’s natural, and quit acting,” he told her.
Hawks wanted the precise timing of the quick-paced dialogue to be a major feature of the picture. “It isn’t done with cutting or anything,” he said. “It’s done by deliberately writing dialogue like real conversation: you’re liable to interrupt me and I’m liable to interrupt you – so you write in such a way that you can overlap the dialogue but not lose anything. It’s just a trick. It’s also a trick getting people to do it – it takes about two or three days to get them accustomed to it and then they’re off.”
Filming began in February 1934 and finished in April. It opened in early May. It didn’t do well, playing only a week at Radio City, where it opened. Variety said the film “was probably too smart for general consumption.” Another contemporary review said, “(Lombard) is alive, vivid, colorful, filled with the fire one would expect from a temperamental and spoiled beauty of the stage and screen such as Lily Garland is sketched. She has learned from Barrymore and there is a frequent use of gestures and tricks of the stage which are mannerisms of his.” Carole Lombard was off and running as the comedienne-star she would become.