The movie centers around an egotistical Broadway director named Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) who finds and cultivates a new theatrical star in the form of a lingerie model named Lily Garland (Carole Lombard). He takes on the role of mentor and in the process totally plays her like a violin. The young, naive Lily, of course, falls for him. Over time, the Svengali loses control of his puppet as she becomes more like a female version of himself. She develops her own ego issues and (gasp) independent thought which puts her at odds with Jaffe. It doesn't take long for her to believe she can do much better than him and the theatre life. They part, but of course, it is not the last time they see each other. They run into each other aboard the Twentieth Century Limited.
I have to admit, I knew nothing about this movie and when I started watching, I was really taken aback. First, at how dreadful Lombard is in her performance as an actress (with the play within a play). Then I realized she was supposed to be terrible so Jaffe could polish her up. Secondly, I was shocked at how much Barrymore completely overacted every second of his performance! I mean, he did the most expansive, over-the-top, hammed up (Jewish people wouldn't even watch due to Kosher laws) and I couldn't imagine why Hawks didn't tone him down a little. Then, maybe 15 minutes in, it dawned on me. Overacting was the whole point. Oscar Jaffe is SUPPOSED to be this incredibly hammy person. That IS the character of Oscar Jaffe. Barrymore is actually spoofing himself as Oscar Jaffe. Duh. Brilliant.
Carole Lombard and John Barrymore before she decides she can do better :-)
After I understood what the point of it was, I really enjoyed the interactions between Jaffe and Lily. I am not sure if there was truly a love-type chemistry there, but they were wonderful in their roles. It is almost like watching a tennis match as they throw barbs back and forth, trying to out do the other. At one point Jaffe says a line that, I think, sums up their relationship. He says, "She loves me. I could tell that through her screaming."
I especially liked the supporting characters of Jaffe's two cronies, Owen O'Malley (Roscoe Karns) and Oliver Webb (Walter Connolly). They have some of the best lines in the whole movie and are hilarious from beginning to end. At one point, Jaffe shouts an empty threat of suicide, as he often does, and one of them quips, "He won't kill himself. It would please too many people." In fact, the whole script is fantastic. The writing is stupendous with great lines throughout. To be fair to Jaffe, he has some good ones at his cronies expense too. For example, "It’s typical of my career that in the great crises of life, I should stand flanked by two incompetent alcoholics!"
I always have weird observations or thoughts after watching a movie for the first time. For this one, I am surprised by what held my focus for one entire scene. On the train, at one point, Lombard is wearing a lightweight white turtleneck. I don't want to sound prudish, but I was surprised that she wasn't wearing a bra under it. I was completely mesmerized watching her, uhmm, assets getting in on the acting. Has anyone else noticed this and was it common to wear a sheer top without a bra in those days? I know it was common in certain dresses, but in a sheer turtleneck? Gosh, maybe I am a prude for even noticing and questioning it.
Also, I had the strangest deja vu watching this. At one point, early on, I saw John Barrymore as Gene Wilder in his Young Frankenstein performance. I mean, seriously, don't those two performances seem very similar? It was disconcerting for me when I realized this and I couldn't stop hearing Wilder's voice and seeing his face in place of Barrymore at various points in the movie.
I also like that this is one of the first screwball comedies. I think "It Happened One Night" gets the honor of being the first, but this was released in the same year. Considering this is a part of the beginning of the genre, this is a wonderful film to take in. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys comedies, especially of the screwball variety.