Playmates (RKO, 1941): John Barrymore, Kay Kyser, Patsy Kelly, Lupe Velez, May Robson, and the Kay Kyser Band (featuring Harry Babbitt, Ish Kibbible, Sully Mason).
The synopsis on my Direct TV guide couldn’t have described it any better – “A has-been actor coaches a corny bandleader for a Shakespeare festival on Long Island.”
Playmates is Barrymore’s final film – and what a way to go out. We can only be happy for his sake that it was the 1940s and not a decade later, or else there was good chance he might have starred in an Ed Wood atrocity.
Barrymore plays himself in this attempted comedy that also stars the likes of bandleader Kay Kyser and his band, Patsy Kelly, and the incomprehensively cast Lupe Velez. At any rate, here’s the plot: Barrymore is broke and in trouble with the IRS (mirroring real life). Kelly, his publicist, is trying to land him a contract with a sponsor for a radio program starring John. To land the sponsor, she and Kyser’s agent (Peter Lynd Hayes) plant a story that Barrymore has agreed to instruct bandleader Kay Kyser in the art of playing Shakespeare. (This is something that only makes sense in movies.) Barrymore and Kyser know nothing about this until it hits the papers. Barrymore is aghast at teaching Southern Boy Kyser (“It’s like trying to teach a rabbit to be a crooner,” he says.), but Kelly convinces him that his future in radio, and a regular paycheck, depends on it.
Booked in a charity performance for the would-be sponsor, Barrymore tries to sabotage Kyser so he can’t go on, but Kay gets wind of the scheme and turns the tables on Barrymore, causing him to miss the performance. Kyser and the band instead give a performance of “Romeo Smith and Juliet Jones” in swingtime. (Yes, it is every bit as bad as it sounds.) The show is a hit and Kyser gives Barrymore the credit, which gets him the sponsorship and the radio show.
So far, not so good. Kelly gives a good performance and could be said to steal the film. However, were she arrested, the most they could hold her on is petty theft. Velez is Barrymore’s former girlfriend, Spanish Bullfighter Carmen Del Toro (how’s that for subtlety) whom he is trying to avoid like the plague. Why Velez is in this film is in itself a mystery. It’s as if the studio executives decided that if they had her under contract, she might as well be in this film until the next “Mexican Spitfire” script is ready.
Naturally, Lupe gives her typical over-the-top performance, which, hammy as it is, incredibly pales to Barrymore’s own over-the-top-performance. When Barrymore convinces her to turn on the charm and render Kyser incapable of performing, it leads to one of the weakest scenes ever in a comedy. Kyser is nowhere near Velez’s level of comic acting and it obviously shows. It’s so bad that a dream sequence with Kyser fighting a bull that looks just like Barrymore is inserted. And, yes, it is every bit as painful with the only saving grace being that no one is inserting needles in your eyes as you watch it.
As for Barrymore, what can I say? It’s truly pathetic watching him play the buffoon. He makes remarks about his financial straits and his drinking, all the more pathetic because this is his real life he’s talking about in the movie. As for his persistent mugging throughout the movie, let’s just say that Barrymore makes more faces than Cheetah ever did in a Tarzan flick. At least Cheetah never did a spit take, as Barrymore does when sipping his coffee and discovering that his visitor is from the IRS.
Not only is Barrymore's drinking referred to throughout the film, but in several scenes it seems as if he's playing his scenes swacked. Admittedly it’s hard to tell because he’s so bloated, but upon careful viewing it becomes evident. It is also evident that he’s reading his lines from cue cards held offstage. Once this is realized it becomes almost impossible to turn this disaster off.
But when we’re sure that we can sit there smugly and laugh ourselves silly, Barrymore reaches out to us with a bit that brings out the true pathos of his condition. While explaining Shakespeare to Kyser, Barrymore launches into Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, bring to it for those few moments all his passion and offering us a window into what he once was as an actor. It’s touching in the extreme and will not leave the serious film fan with a dry eye.
In the moments when Barrymore is not on screen we have to suffer with the antics of Kyser and his band, in particular, the oddly named Ish Kabbible (Merwyn Bogue). It’s said that his act is corny. That it may be, but most corny has a bit of funny in it. Ish’s proclamations do not. That and his Moe Howard haircut make for a true horror show whenever he appears on screen. He described the origins of his stage name in his autobiography as a play on the Yiddish expression “Ische ga bibble?” This means “I should worry?” or “What, me worry?” It’s the phrase that Mad’s poster boy Alfred E. Newman would later become famous.
Sad to say, our last look at the great Barrymore on screen is the sight of watching him chased by Velez, with the two of them running like something out of a Benny Hill sketch. Poor Barrymore. Out of respect we should turn it off, but we shouldn’t stare at a traffic accident, either.
Grandma Kyser to Barrymore after he has hurt his back: Have you tried rubbing alcohol?
Barrymore: Not since Prohibition.
Barrymore: Not since Prohibition.