As a vainglorious state producer, John Barrymore is in fine fettle in "20th Century," a pictorial adaptation of the Hecht-MacArthur play, which is now decorating the Radio City Music Hall screen. And if it be said that it is his best performance since the one he gave in "Reunion in Vienna" it is by no means casting any reflections on his work in the interim, but merely that here he has a role with which to conjure, one that calls for a definite characterization notwithstanding the farcical interludes. Even during the repetitious mad moments of the tale, Mr. Barrymore acts with such imagination and zest that he never fails to keep the picture thoroughly alive.
Messers, Hecht and MacArthur, who in the first place based their stage offering on a play written by Charles Bruce Millholland, were also responsible for bringing the story to the screen. They have made certain changes in doing this task, but, as in the original work, it seems a pity that they were tempted to stray occasionally too far from the realm of restrained comedy and indulge their fancy for boisterous humor. Instead of having all the action occur on a train bound from Chicago for this city, as was the case in the play, nearly half of the picture is concerned with incidents in the theatre run by the egomaniac Oscar Jaffe. This change is quite a good one, for although there is no gainsaying that the happenings on the train are frequently hilarious, the earlier glimpses have the virtue of being more effective through their relative restraint.
Oscar Jaffe's imperiousness is enough to rattle the brains of anybody working for him. He has his passing fancies, and his press agent and his manager are presumed to be able to guess what is in his mind. He decides that a girl who ventures backstage with the name of Mildred Plotka shall henceforth be known as Lily Garland. Oliver Webb and Owen O'Malley, respectively Jaffe's manager and press agent, evidently think that they have never looked upon a girl quite as gauche as this novice. On the other hand, the omnipotent impresario does not deign to harken to their advice and persists in instructing Lily in acting her role, drawing chalk lines and making figures on the floor to help her. It may not happen always so in life, but in this tale Lily wins histrionic laurels on her first night. A glistening star adorns her dressing room and for three years Lily, as actress and mistress, endures Jaffe's idiosyncrasies.
Jaffe and Lily have their tempestuous moments, but they usually kiss and make up. Finally there is one outburst after which Lily vows she will have no more of the hysterical Jaffe, and she goes West to Hollywood and fame. It is on the return journey some time later- after Lily Garland's blue eyes and blond hair have appeared on newsstands throughout the land- that Jaffe, accompanied by Webb and O'Malley, embarks at the Windy City for New York and discovers that the beauteous Lily is on the same train. Unfortunately, she is accompanied by her fiancÚ, for whom Jaffe expresses utter contempt.
A variety of characters aboard the flyer help to sustain the interest in the hectic doings. There is the lunatic with illusions of fabulous wealth, the excited conductors, porters and brakeman and a couple of bearded players who hope to get into a Jaffe production, when actually the poor star-maker has had to disguise himself to escape his creditors.
There is many a witty remark in this harum-scarum adventure. Carole Lombard gives an able portrayal as Lily. Walter Connolly is excellent as Webb and Roscoe Karns, although he talks somewhat indistinctly, something which may be excused because of the bibulous nature of the character he plays, adds bright flashes to the film. Etienne Girardot is another asset.