“TWENTIETH CENTURY” — THE PLAY
Before there was the glorious musical On the 20th Century in 1978, there was first its source, a Broadway comedy from 1932 simply titled Twentieth Century. It’s the story of a down-on-his-luck producer/director, Oscar Jaffe, who finds himself, after a disastrous opening night of his latest show in Chicago, fleeing from creditors and investors. Sneaking out of town on board the 20th Century Limited, he finds out his biggest discovery (and former flame) is also on the train: Mildred Plotka, whom Oscar had transformed into the megastar, Lily Garland. Thus, his devious plan is put in motion to win her back as both employee and lover, using her newfound film stardom to ensure box office for his “comeback” play, though it isn’t even written. It’s a great setup and, with two crazy, egocentrics at its center, works as low comedy, farce and satire.
In the late 1970s, composer Cy Coleman was set to musicalize Twentieth Century with the legendary Betty Comden and Adolph Green attached to write the lyrics and libretto. For inspiration, they looked to the 1934 film to adapt, generally considered superior to the play, but were stuck with it as the film rights weren’t available. A fast-paced affair, clocking in at a taut ninety-one minutes, it is performed with outrageous commitment by its two stars, John Barrymore and Carole Lombard, under the guidance of master Hollywood director, Howard Hawks. Always having a hand in the writing of his films (whether he took credit or not), Hawks went through a number of writers before eventually bringing aboard the authors of the 1932 play, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who took a final pass at the script. Preston Sturges (The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels), whose career was only just beginning in Hollywood, did some uncredited work on it, as did Gene Fowler (What Price Hollywood?) and Herman Mankiewitz (Citizen Kane).
Deemed a film classic today, Twentieth Century is also generally acknowledged as the first in what would become a series of “screwball” comedies that proliferated during the 1930s and 40s. In his book,Screwball: Hollywood’s Madcap Romantic Comedies, author Ed Sikov writes, “It Happened One Night was screwball comedy’s commercial catalyst, but in many ways its artistic spur was Twentieth Century.” Both released in 1934, they paved the path for leading men and women to roll in the mud (figuratively, and often literally), in low comedy previously delegated to supporting players. The joy in watching Barrymore and Lombard chew the scenery is a sight to see. Barrymore, it seems at times, has been let loose from an insane asylum in order to shoot the movie, with Lombard matching him every step of the way at her histrionic best. And sexual sparks fly, which is essential to keeping the tensions between these two characters abundantly alive.
Of the original 1932 Broadway production, theatre historian Louis Botto reported in a 2004 Playbill article that “Twentieth Century was considered kind of scandalous because it was so obviously about [producer] Jed Harris… so reviled by many in the theatre community, that [playwright] George S. Kaufman once said when he died, he wanted to be cremated and have somebody throw his ashes in Jed Harris’ face… Press agent Richard Maney, who long represented Harris, and knew Hecht and MacArthur, said in his autobiography that the role of Jaffe did indeed ape Harris, but also drew on the characters of producers Morris Gest and David Belasco. Interestingly, it was Harris who first commissioned Hecht and MacArthur to write the comedy.”
Morris Gest was indeed the initial inspiration for Oscar Jaffe since it came directly out of the experiences of a young playwright, Charles Bruce Millholland, who once worked for Gest as an assistant. Millholland’s behind-the-scenes play was titled The Napoleon of Broadway and caught the interest of (who else?) but Jed Harris, who might or might not have recognized himself in Jaffe. It was he who engaged Hecht and MacArthur to rewrite Millholland, as both were fresh off their smash hit comedy The Front Page, which Harris had produced. But the team hated Harris (who didn’t?) and they skipped town and ran to Hollywood, keeping their $5,000 advance until the option lapsed. The play then wound up in the hands of George Abbott, who, at the time, was Harris’s chief competitor as King of Broadway. Along with Philip Dunning, the author of Broadway (1926), a smash hit that Abbott had directed, the pair did uncredited rewrites on Twentieth Century, which opened to rave reviews and strong business at the height of the Great Depression.
As for Charles Bruce Milllholland, his name will forever contractually appear in the credits for Twentieth Century’s original play, film and musical versions, as it was he who first created the story and characters. Besides Everybody Comes to Rick’s, which became the movie Casablanca, it’s hard to come up with another unproduced play besides The Napoleon of Broadway that has taken on such immortality.
The first Oscar Jaffe was Moffat Johnston, barely known today, who was a Scottish actor with a classical reputation. In a Broadway career that had begun just ten years prior, Twentieth Century marked the actor’s 30th appearance (seriously, I had to check that statistic twice). With Macbeth and King Lear already under his belt, perhaps Oscar came naturally to him. Sadly, Moffat died at the age of forty-nine only three years later. In the role of his leading lady, Lily Garland, was Russian-born and Moscow Art Theatre-trained Eugenie Leontovich, another serious actor taking on a highly comedic role. Two years prior to Twentieth Century, she had created the role of the ballerina Grusinskaia in Grand Hotel on Broadway, later made famous on film by Greta Garbo. And in 1954, she would receive the reviews of her career as the Dowager Empress in the first stage version of Anastasia. Also in Twentieth Century, in the supporting role of Owen O’Malley — the consistently inebriated aide de camp to Oscar — was William Frawley, relatively fresh from his vaudeville days and twenty years prior to portraying Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy.
Eighteen years after Twentieth Century first opened, it returned to Broadway in 1950, with director José Ferrer casting himself as Oscar Jaffe. At that time, Ferrer was the most sought after actor/director in the theatre. Two years later, he would win the Tony Award as Best Director for a trio of plays: Stalag 17, The Shrike and The Fourposter, an accomplishment unmatched to this day. For his Lily, he chose Gloria Swanson, fresh off what would prove her greatest triumph, Sunset Boulevard. Together, Ferrer and Swanson were dynamite. New York Times theatre critic Brooks Atkinson wrote in his typical old fashioned manner, “Miss Swanson and he [Ferrer] have given the theatre’s funny bone a good, solid whack.”
In March 1951, the Academy Awards ceremony was held in Los Angeles, as usual. But it was Ferrer’s idea to invite all available nominees in New York (who couldn’t make to the coast) to La Zambra, a nightclub on West 52nd Street. Seated at tables, the nominees wined and dined with a live radio link hooked up for acceptance speeches should they be required. Ferrer won Best Actor for repeating his stage performance as Cyrano de Bergerac and Judy Holiday took home Best Actress for repeating her stage role in Born Yesterday. As this photo clearly shows, Miss Swanson had to take solace in being only Oscar-adjacent that evening.
But after a few months, when the in-demand and overbooked Ferrer had to leave Twentieth Century, he despaired over the box office potentially sinking after his departure. Providence intervened when an actor acquaintance was in town en route from London to his California home, and by chance ran into Ferrer. Timing being everything, when Ferrer mentioned that he was about to leave Twentieth Century and was seeking someone to replace him, without thinking twice, the actor seized the moment. “Christ, I jumped at the chance and we signed a contract right there on a Dinty Moore’s napkin,” the actor told an interviewer years later. “I guess everything that’s happened to me in this business has always had a bit of luck accompanying it. But let’s face it, I deliver. All the New York critics came back to re-review Twentieth Century and watch this punk, Hollywood western actor fall on his ass. They were so thrilled I didn’t, I got a marvelous set of notices.”
That actor was Robert Preston, seven years before his triumph in The Music Man. It was the play that brought him to the attention of New York Theatre people and was responsible for the changeup in his career that made him a star of the first magnitude.
During the height of radio and live television broadcasts, the roles of Oscar and Lily proved a lure for many different types. Orson Welles, Fredric March, Lili Palmer and Betty Grable all played it in various adaptations.
Since 1950, Twentieth Century was revived on Broadway with some updating from Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor, Crazy for You). It was produced by the Roundabout Theatre in 2004 and disappointingly starred Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche, who failed to light up the stage with sufficient wattage. No one thought Ludwig’s improvements improved it much either.
Later this week, I will delve into the significant history of On the 20th Century — the musical. Don’t miss it (you can subscribe to all future columns by following me here on Medium).
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.