Theater producer Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) is one of the most renowned producers in the business. His name being attached to a show is essentially a guarantee that the show will be of the highest quality. So when he casts lingerie model Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard) as the lead in his new show, even his closest associates start to question his judgment. Mildred shows little acting ability during rehearsals, but with Oscar’s forceful directing technique and a new stage name — Lily Garland — she is a sensation when the show opens.
Lily and Oscar continue to collaborate on stage and carry on a romantic relationship behind the scenes as well. But when Lily finally decides she’s had enough of Oscar’s controlling tendencies, she heads off to Hollywood to try her luck in films. Oscar is completely lost without Lily and even though he tries to replace her, nobody can really fill her shoes. After a string of his shows fail, Oscar has to get out of Chicago before the sheriff can get him first so he gets on the train to New York. As luck would have it, Lily, now a successful movie star, and her new boyfriend George (Ralph Forbes) are taking a trip on the same train.
When some of Oscar’s associates realize she’s on board, they try to convince her to do another show with Oscar just to get him out of trouble. She still wants nothing to do with Oscar, but Oscar just takes her refusal as a challenge and will stop at nothing until she agrees to star in his next show.
If you ever want to see two actors clearly having the time of their lives, look no further than Twentieth Century. John Barrymore and Carole Lombard really sink their teeth into their roles and it’s hard not to be drawn in by their sheer enthusiasm. Reportedly when director Howard Hawks offered John Barrymore the part of Oscar, Barrymore asked him why he wanted him to play this part. Hawks explained that Twentieth Century is the story of the biggest ham on Earth and Barrymore was the biggest ham he knew. That was all Barrymore needed to hear and accepted the part on the spot. And boy did Barrymore ever revel in being a ham here! If he were any more of a ham, he’d need a honey glaze. But that is exactly what the part called for and I can’t imagine who else could have played it better.
At the time he made Twentieth Century, Barrymore’s career had peaked, but Carole Lombard’s was about to take off. Lombard had been making movies for a few years already but hadn’t quite had that definitive movie role to launch her career to the next level. Twentieth Century turned out to be that movie. Even though Barrymore was the more experienced actor, Lombard had absolutely no problem keeping up with him. Barrymore even later referred to Lombard as the greatest actress he had ever worked with. And considering some of the names Barrymore had worked with, that is a compliment of the highest order.