I had the pleasure of spending the evening last night in the Fort Lee Municipal Courtroom with members of the Fort Lee Film Commission for a screening of Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. The free screening of the film kicked off a weekend-long tribute to John Barrymore who, along with his famous siblings, has his acting roots in Fort Lee, New Jersey and surrounding areas.
Standing on the corner of Main Street and Central Road in Fort Lee, the site of the former Buckheister’s Hotel (pictured above) is John Barrymore Way where the 18-year-old John made his stage debut in 1900 in the play “A Man of the World” directed by his father, a resident of the Coytesville section of Fort Lee and Broadway thespian, Maurice Barrymore. (FortLeeFilm.org)
John Barrymore’s debut performance was a fundraiser for the Coytesville Fire Dept. and raised enough money to build a fire house (the building still stands on Washington Avenue) and purchase uniforms, which were designed by Maurice Barrymore. Coytesville is a neighborhood in Fort Lee, by the way.
During his introduction of Twentieth Century last night, Tom Meyers, Executive Director of the Fort Lee Film Commission, spoke about the debut of young John Barrymore who was dropped off by his older sister Ethel at the home of his father in Coytesville all those years ago. Maurice expected John to go into acting despite the fact the younger Barrymore had no interest in the profession – “it’s the family business” the elder insisted and that was that.
Central to this weekend’s Fort Lee Barrymore festivities, by the way, are live performances of the play “Barrymore” by the Fort Lee High School Drama Department today and tomorrow (April 26th and 27th) at 7:30 pm in the courtroom of the Fort Lee Borough Hall at 309 Main Street. Visit the Fort Lee Film Commission site for further details. These performances are to raise funds for the Fort Lee High School Drama Department in John Barrymore’s name.
But, it’s important to know that this is just one weekend in what is a long-term Barrymore tribute by/for Fort Lee. For instance, featured in the Fort Lee Museum is a Barrymore exhibit, which includes one of the fire fighter uniforms mentioned above. I plan to visit the exhibit soon. For details on the exhibit visit the Fort Lee Historical Society and follow the Fort Lee Film Commission on facebook and/or visit the site for news about upcoming events.
The most exciting piece of information shared by Mr. Meyers last night has to do with plans that are under way for a theater that will come to fruition in 2 to 3 years. The theater, to be named “Barrymore” will be a one-screen facility adjacent to a film museum and will stand near the site where the Barrymores lived and worked in the early days of the film industry. The Commission plans to reach out to TCM to work with them in hopes of having Drew Barrymore and Robert Osborne present at the Barrymore Theater’s inauguration. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
As it stands, as the representative of the Fort Lee Film Commission, Tom Meyers lugs a screen and projector around with him to showcase motion pictures in an ongoing effort to keep Fort Lee’s film heritage alive. I found last night’s screening in the Municipal Courtroom charming. The Courtroom is just one of the venues currently used by the Commission to screen films to celebrate important tributes, anniversaries and special events tied to Fort Lee’s rich history and connection to film. Other venues used include the Palisades cliffs where “cliffhangers” were born.
I’ve done this in the past and will undoubtedly do so again – that is, extend a hearty congratulations and a tip of the hat to Tom Meyers, The Fort Lee Film Commission, The Fort Lee Historical Society and the many others who work so tirelessly to ensure the area’s rich history and connection to the birth of motion pictures stays ever-present, recognized – and valued.
As far as Hawks’ Twentieth Century goes it’s a must-see. Both Barrymore and Lombard are fun to watch. The film did not do well with audiences in 1934, but has gained recognition through the years winning entry to the National Film Registry in 2011. Along with Frank Capra‘s It Happened One Night, another Columbia Pictures 1934 release, Twentieth Century is considered to be a standard of screwball comedy, a genre that’s long since been lost as far as new productions go – in my opinion. I’ll add that it may well be that the success of It Happened affected audience response to Twentieth Century in 1934.
In Twentieth Century John Barrymore plays Oscar Jaffe, a genius Broadway writer/producer who makes a star of an unknown lingerie model named Mildred Plotka (Lombard). After changing Plotka’s name to “Lily Garland” and subjecting the fledging actress to grueling rehearsals the two have a string of hits on the stage. But their relationship is tumultuous at best as his obsession with Lily grows with time and includes his hiring detectives and tapping her phone.
After a few years and the several hits Lily Garland becomes a huge star in her own right and tries to break off her personal and professional relationship with Jaffe who feels he owns her. Lily leaves Broadway for Hollywood to make motion pictures and succeeds there as well. Meanwhile her absence results in flop after flop for Oscar Jaffe. Soon the former genius is indebted to everyone who’s anyone on Broadway and tries to escape imprisonment by disguising himself and boarding the 20th Century Limited (hence the title of the film) traveling from Chicago to New York. As luck would have it, Lily Garland boards the same train at a later stop giving Oscar a chance to try to resign the actress to a new contract and restore his fortune and popularity. Lily, however, wants nothing to do with Jaffe so madcap ensues as Jaffe tries several tricks, including feigning a dying scene in order to get her to sign a contract.
I won’t divulge how the film ends, but know the journey to that end is enjoyable. True to the gifts of its two main stars, the comedy in Twentieth Century is broad, performed with style, pomp and circumstance. Also enjoyable is the film’s supporting cast, which includes greats Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns and Edgar Kennedy.