Peter Bogdanovich, in the bonus materials for the release of Twentieth Century under consideration here, argues convincingly that its director introduced many of the cinematic innovations subsequently credited to Orson Welles. Though recognised by the cognoscenti, his peers and many of the significant artists who followed him (try shutting John Carpenter up on this subject), Howard Winchester Hawks received scant acknowledgement from the Hollywood Establishment during his lifetime. He was nominated for the “best director” Oscar only once and had to wait until 1974 for an honorary Academy Award. Disrespect had dogged him since early days… he doesn’t even get a director’s credit (!) on The Criminal Code, the first picture he made (in 1930) for Columbia.
In this adaptation of Martin Flavin’s stage melodrama, young Robert Graham (the ill-fated Phillips Holmes) is interrogated by D.A. Mark Brady (Walter Huston) after accidentally killing a man who initiated a stupid bar room brawl. Brady recognises the mitigating factors in the case and has empathy for the plight of a young man whose life is about to go pointlessly down the tubes (with the aid of an inept defence attorney), but successfully prosecutes him anyway. Brady’s an exemplary professional, his motto: “The criminal code is my Bible!” Six years working in a prison jute mill (I never realised that jute mills were such bad places!) have brought Graham to breaking point by the time Brady turns up as the new Warden of the joint in which he’s incarcerated. Laying down a marker, Brady goes into the exercise yard, alone and unarmed (I bet the trigger fingers of the machine gun toting guards on the walls were twitching away, though) and faces down a crowd of angry men whom he put there (nor does he hesitate to employ a cut throat murderer as his personal barber). He’s hard as nails but there’s a tacit admission from the cons that he’s scrupulously fair as well.
Brady doesn’t even remember Graham (he has, after all, sent so many men down) but, out of plain decency, plucks him from that jute mill to work as a valet to himself and his daughter Mary (Constance Cummings, in her screen debut). Graham rediscovers his humanity while falling in love with Mary, but when he witnesses cell mate Ned Galloway (Boris Karloff) silencing a stool pigeon, his adherence to the the inmates’ parallel criminal code puts him in the frame and his dreams of redemption in jeapourdy…
Karloff’s small but crucial role was played with sufficient conviction to persuade James Whale that he had found his Frankenstein (1931) Monster.
I’m unaware if Whale ever saw Hawks’ sophomore Columbia outing, Twentieth Century (1934) but if he did, it’s safe to say that John Barrymore’s performance would have left an indelible impression on him. Sending himself up so high he’s nearly in orbit (even defacing, in the process, his “great profile”), rattling out Ben Hecht’s witty lines like machine gun bullets and generally chewing the scenery, Barrymore plays theatrical impressario Oscar Jaffe, whose greatest triumphs overlapped his partnership with his very own Trilby, Lily Garland (Carole Lombard). Now they’re professionally and romantically sundered, she’s very much the snotty star and he’s down on his uppers when their paths cross again aboard the locomotive known as The Twentieth Century. Jaffe goes full tilt at the reconciliation he protests he doesn’t want, nor can Lily resist the magnetism of the Svengali who formed her from the unpromising raw material of Mildred Plotka. Possibly the most fascinating thing about Twentieth Century is the way that the early scenes in which Jaffe bullies / seduces Mildred into becoming the actress she could be (“The diamond was there, I merely applied a little polish”) mirror the job that Barrymore (and Hawks) did on the initially stiff Lombard (or Jane Alice Peters, as she had been born). If this seems like an unreconstructured patriarchal take on what happened during the making of Twentieth Century, it’s the account to which Lombard herself consistently adhered.
By the time the journey ends, Jaffe and Garland have had about enough of each other but remain inextricably connected, while the viewer can heave a sigh of relief and walk away from the wreckage. This film’s title ostensibly refers to a train but it’s obviously a comment on the Century of Celebrity (or what must have seemed like it at the time… God knows what Hawks and his stalwart screenwriter, Hecht would make of the first quarter of the Century that followed).
Stacked against The Criminal Code, Twentieth Century (one of the seminal works of what became Screwball Comedy) illustrates the sheer versatility of Howard Hawks, consummate story teller and character developer, who stamped his signature on everything he ever made. After watching these two, I was trying to work out from which director Hawks pinched the device of wise-cracking subsidiary characters commenting on the unfolding action… until the penny dropped that it’s straight out of Shakespeare. Nice company to keep, if you can keep up…
Extras wise, The Criminal Code boasts Nora Fiore’s audio commentary, a Kim Newman featurette on Karloff’s non-Horror credits and a new video essay by Jonathan Bygraves on the numerous adaptations of Marvin Flavin’s original play. Speak of the devil, here’s the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of it starring Edward G Robinson, Beverly Roberts and Paul Guilfoyle. “The Howard Hawks Masterclass with John Carpenter” is an archival audio recording of that director’s presentation at the NFT’s Hawks retrospective in 1997. It suffers somewhat from the non-visibilty of the clips to which JC refers but come on, people, use your imaginations. The expected image galleries include on-set and promotional photography from not only Hawks’ The Criminal Code but also the lost Spanish-language version, El Código Penal, which was shot simultaneously. The 36-page collectors’ booklet in this one comprises a new essay by Philip Kemp, Hawks own comments on The Criminal Code, an archival feature on the director by Henri Langlois, contemporary critical responses and full film credits.
Twentieth Century (which has been restored in 4K) comes with an audio commentary from Farran Smith Nehme, the aforementioned short big up for the film from Peter Bogdanovich and Lucy Bolton’s appreciation of Carole Lombard. You get another radio presentation, courtesy of The Campbell Playhouse and starring Orson Welles alongside Elissa Landi, also a condensed (not by Campbells, unfortunately) Super 8 version. There’s a trailer put together for the film’s presentation at the Austin Film Society in 2016 and an image gallery of on-set and promotional photography. The (32 page) booklet includes a new essay by Pamela Hutchinson, Howard Hawks’ thoughts on the film, contemporary crits and full film credits.