20th Century, a play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, opened on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre on December 29, 1932. At first glance, the play appears to be nothing more than a tasty farce about ego-maniacs in love and hate, with all the requisite slamming doors and rapid fire dialogue. The writers, Hecht and MacArthur had already staked their claim in the American theatre with a play called The Front Page, a satire about the newspaper business that formed the template for fictional depictions of the Fourth Estate for years to come. Like their earlier play, 20th Century featured crisp witty dialogue delivered by oversized personalities, in this case former stage actress turned movie star Lily Garland and Broadway producer Oscar Jaffee. However, viewed about 80 years later, the play offers an interesting window on several social shifts to come in what remained of the titular century. Though the play takes its name from the super-luxurious New York Central train on which it is set, I believe the title was somewhat prophetic, offering glimpses of things to come in that century. Specifically, it shows women in control of their own destinies, and the battle between “high” and “low” art, which still rages, though the latter now is more or less firmly in control.
To summarize the play and its primary adaptations (a 1934 film starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard, pictured above, and a 1978 Broadway musical, re-named On the 20th Century, starring John Cullum, Madeline Kahn, and star-in-the-making Kevin Kline), the story is a comedic power play between Garland and Jaffee. It’s sort of like Pygmalion (or to cite another Broadway musical reference, My Fair Lady), as Jaffee molds the talented but naïve Mildred Plotka into a stage star, changing her name and just about everything else along the way. The difference is once Garland makes it, she has no trouble casting aside her Pygmalion. Jaffee, who sculpted her career as both her producer and her lover, was so controlling and manipulative that she felt she had to escape to keep breathing. Both the stage play and the musical focus less time than the film on the background of the couple’s relationship and set most of the action aboard the train, which Garland boards with full fanfare and a younger boyfriend, while Jaffee sneaks onboard from his latest out of town failure, with creditors on his tail. The tables have fully turned and Jaffee, penniless and without a backer in sight, is desperate to woo Garland, not for romantic reasons, but because her name on a contract will allow him to find funding for another show. A song from On the 20th Century called “Mine,” performed by Jaffee, and her current lover Bruce Granit, a minor Hollywood personality, makes it clear she is a “meal ticket” for both of them.
You’re almost perfect but one thing is true
You need her desperately,
but she does not need you.
She runs the show.
She leads the band.
The royal flush
Is in her hand
Face it old boy
You can’t afford to fail
(Comden and Green)
In 1932, in a country reeling from the Great Depression, there might have been some pleasure in seeing the mighty like Jaffee fall and the “little nobody,” rise so high. Though Broadway was arguably more affordable in the 30s than it is today, not many Americans got to savor this role reversal on stage, but its certainly possible they enjoyed it when Howard Hawks brought the story to the screen in 1934. The movies of the 1930s managed to incorporate both the realities of America’s situation (primarily through gritty crime dramas) and the escapism of musicals like 42nd Street. 20th Century, as an early standard bearer of a genre specific to the 1930s, the screwball comedy, managed to do a little bit of both, while perhaps also pointing towards a new direction for American women.
Mainly because of the popularity of the screwball comedies, strong women like Lily Garland were not unheard of in 1930s entertainment. These movies were characterized by witty dialogue and male/female relationships where the woman is often in control. At its best, played by actresses like Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby or Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey, these were good-natured, entertaining films where the inevitable coupling at the end didn’t require either the man or the woman to compromise themselves. However, by giving the stronger role to the woman, they suggested a definite change to traditional male/female roles. With the Great Depression keeping men out of their traditional bread winner roles, perhaps its not surprising that women were stepping into that void, in real life and on the screen.
One opinion, voiced by researchers at the University of Virginia in an online posting called “Under the Radar: The Hays Code and the Birth of Screwball,” suggested the screwball comedy had two different purposes: to allow for “a strong social class critique,” while remaining in compliance with increasing enforcement of the Hays Code, a self-imposed industry “purity” standard that limited even implied depictions of sexual contact.
If producers couldn’t show couples in actions deemed sexual, then they would create heat and sexual tension through a more verbal form of intercourse. 20th Century presents a pattern for how such wordy foreplay could be conducted, though it contains hints of what Hollywood would soon try to eliminate with the Hays Code. One scene in the film shows an elaborate boat-shaped bed in Lily’s apartment that it is clear she shares with Oscar. And, when we see her on the train, she appears to be sharing her sleeper compartment with her new boyfriend.
It was Lombard, one of the greats of the screwball genre, who brought Lily to the screen and though her performance is a bit histrionic, there is little doubt that her Lily is comfortably in control of her own situation. In both the film and the musical, Lily’s decision to return to Oscar at the end is of her own free will and with the acknowledgement that she will not go back to being his puppet. If the 1978 musical version reflects a somewhat more modern approach to the woman’s role, it is in her relationship with her lover, Bruce Granit. Though Madeline Kahn was only a few years older than Kevin Kline when the show opened—Kline was in his early 30s and Kahn in her mid 30s—the dynamic of their characters’ relationship clearly placed him as her dependent boy toy. Granit is a screen actor of little talent (though played by a stage actor of great talent who would have a strong film career of his own) and would be nothing without her. He is clearly using only his looks and sexuality to stay in her good graces. In the aforementioned song “Mine,” as the two characters list what makes them desirable to Lily, Granit sings of “his flashing eyes,” “brilliant smile,” and “brutal thighs,” while Jaffee talks about his mind. One could almost see the shadow of the “cougar,” a now much more accepted role for women emerging. In 1978, female celebrities swapping powerful established industry husbands for younger lovers and partners, as women like Madonna and Demi Moore would later do, was still something of a novelty. On the 20th Century returns to Broadway this spring, and it will be interesting to see whether this dynamic still seems so pronounced, or if changing attitudes keep it from even registering to the audience.
The other “battle” clearly evident in all versions of the original play is that of Hollywood vs. Broadway, and through that battle, the idea of high vs. low culture. In this day and age, with Broadway producers content to turn movies into shows and to recycle old ideas any way they can, it’s rather hard to still think of Broadway as “high culture.” Yet in the battle between stage and screen, the stage has always been held up as a more elevated art form. The fun in examining the play and its subsequent variations is to see how this debate played out in so many ironic ways.
Brooks Atkinson, who at the end of 1932 reviewed the premiere performance for The New York Times, identified the first of the battle salvos. Titling his review “In Which Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur Fire a Squib at the Theatre of Broadway,” Atkinson’s response to the play was somewhat tepid, turned-off as it seems by what he sees as a disrespectful attitude on the part of the authors towards the institution of theatre. Atkinson’s opening paragraph states “Being infatuated with the theatre, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur have logically held it up to ridicule.” Though the review speaks kindly of the acting and other elements of the play, his references to the authors carry a trace of condescension, as if by mocking aspects of the Broadway scene, Hecht and MacArthur have somehow cheapened it. Atkinson ends his review by referring to them as “unreliable authors,” but “highly amusing low comics.” Perhaps, with these types of attitudes its not surprising that Hecht would end up making his living as a screenwriter.
In Howard Hawks’ film version, the high versus low culture theme takes an interesting twist. Jaffee is played in that film by John Barrymore, a member of the most prominent theatre family in America. When he decries how Lily “sold out,” it echoes oddly with his own career. Considered by some to be the finest American Shakespearean actor of his time, Barrymore embraced film while it was still in the silent era, succeeding in that medium primarily because of his dark good looks and famous profile. Seems there was a little bit of Bruce Granit in this Oscar Jaffee.
By the time the producers of On the 20th Century brought Lily and Oscar back to the theatre, the balance of power in the entertainment world had shifted dramatically. While still holding the power to do amazing things, Broadway had long since abdicated the role it used to play as chief arbiter and influence of American entertainment. No one in that day and age—or even less so today—would have questioned Lily’s leap to Hollywood, with the very tangible benefits she lists in a song called “I’ve Got it all” (My Life is simply great/My silverware is gold/Through my Bel Air estate, Champagne’s a flowing river/Next to my Rolls Royce, A Cadillac’s a flivver/I’m in clover/And my cup it runneth over”). Yet, Oscar is still able to strike a nerve when, in the same song, he tells her, “your art is gone/it’s coarsened and it’s cheapened.” When she pulls out her Academy Award to defend herself, his response is “That’s not the Holy Grail.”
In this high culture versus low culture debate, it is interesting to note that the writers of the music and lyrics for the musical, Broadway veterans Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green aimed for high culture with their score. All the songs have an operatic feel to them, while the lyrics are witty and use the English language well. It’s almost like these collaborators wanted to step up their game to produce a group of songs that truly challenged the singers, a “high culture” twist even on songs with deliberately comic intent.
Adding another layer, the real-life drama behind the musical only served to continue those cross-media battle lines. Kahn lasted only two months in the part. Though this writer has no access to the final word about what happened, some of the rumors were that Kahn took her diva role to heart. Though she had Broadway credits prior to 20th Century, she was, and for the most part still is, primarily known for her work in films. As such, the thinking goes, perhaps she was not ready to deal with Broadway’s rigorous eight-times-a week schedule. Even all these years later, no one has said so definitively. But, when her understudy, Judy Kaye, a Broadway “lifer,” who has remained true to her stage calling even years later, stepped into the role, critics and audiences alike hailed her performance as a stage legend come to life: the understudy who becomes a star. The funny thing is that “legend” actually comes from a movie, when Ruby Keeler’s kid from the chorus is given the speech “Peggy Sawyer, you’re going out there a chorus girl, but you have to come back a star.”
As On the 20th Century returns for its first major NYC revival at the Roundabout Theatre, the question is what does the show have to say to the 21st Century? Will there be a different feeling to the battle of the sexes now that it has been going on for so long? Will the high versus low art debate have any true meaning when many would question if the labels themselves have any meaning today? Interestingly enough, the two incoming leads, Peter Gallagher and Kristin Chenoweth, are both Broadway veterans who may still be better known for their work in television. Small screen takes on big stage. Let the games begin!