Monday, December 31, 2012


Few, if any, great actors had such a spectacular, sorrowful fall as John Barrymore. From preeminent actor to public buffoon, Barrymore allowed his addictions -- alcohol and sex, among others -- drive him to financial and artistic ruin. 

By the time of his death in 1942, he had been reduced to playing Rudy Vallee's radio stooge, indulging in self-abasement for the pleasure of the American audience. So far gone was his health that, unlike his co-stars, he had to read his lines sitting from a chair -- there was no way he could stand for the duration of the show.

Barrymore's movie career, too, had taken a similar path. The titles alone -- Hold that Co-Ed, The Invisible Woman, The Great Profile -- tell you that his glory days were long gone. His final movie, Playmates, made a year before his death, sends shudders through Barrymore fans even today. Playing, as with Vallee's radio show, a parody of himself, the once-greatest Hamlet of his generation was a willing participant in yet another chapter of his long, public suicide.

Or... You can look at Playmates another way: a low-rent comedy with a rollicking performance by an actor trying to make a legitimate living. Until it starts to falter, due partly to the headache-inducing appearance of Lupe Velez, Playmates allows John Barrymore one, final chance at playing comedy like nobody else.

Taking advantage of his public persona, Playmates presents Barrymore as a washed-up ham taking part in a publicity stunt to revive his career. In giving bandleader Kay Kyser lessons in Shakespeare, the once-great star hopes to get a radio contract and start paying off his debts. Barrymore is appalled to be working with the Southern-born Kyser, calling him, among other things, "that syncopated cotton-picker" and "that nursemaid to a bass tuba." (I don't understand what it means, either.) 

By distracting Kyser with with the sexy Carmen del Toro (Lupe Velez) and dousing Kyser's throat with a liquid to close his vocal cords on opening night, Barrymore tries to take over their Shakespeare festival himself. Kyser eventually catches on and turns the tables on him, making for what director David Butler thought was a funny sight of the two actors talking as if they just sucked on lemons.

Barrymore wonders how he went from
Shakespeare to Kay Kyser and Lupe Velez.
No, Playmates doesn't wander very near the "classic" territory. The script, as with many 1940s comedies, is both hamfisted and lightweight. (What happened to the sophisticated wits of the 1930s? They couldn't have all been drafted). Kay Kyser has the personality of a pair of loafers. Make that half a pair. (He does, however, feature in a genuinely bizarre nightmare sequence both funny and discomforting.) Patsy Kelly, as Barrymore's sarcastic agent Lulu, is grating enough to shave a wedge of Parmesan into dust. 

Kay Kyser's band is the '40s version of Herman's Hermits -- borderline novelty, nothing to make you forget Benny Goodman. When Barrymore says, "Some things are too low for even me to stoop to," you know it's a lie -- after all, he's in Playmates, his name below the title and Kay Kyser's above in letters that fill the screen.
Steadying himself on Kyser while the
 studio hairdresser goes to work.

But from his first appearance, you know who the real star is. Barrymore is breathtakingly, hilariously over the top. Eyebrows wagging more than Groucho's, bellowing his lines like a bull elephant, he commands the screen the way few actors of his time (outside of his brother Lionel) could. His outraged reaction to Kyser attempting the "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech alone is gut-bustingly funny. If only he was working with a script as great as he was.

True, he looks terrible, the bags under his eyes more like steamer trunks. His hair is greasy enough to saute a herd of cows. The face and body are bloated from an overdose of the alleged good life. And you could pass out from playing a drinking game every time he reads from his cue cards.

"It's come to this -- being groped by
Patsy Kelly?"
And yes, the insults to Barrymore pile up like snowflakes in a blizzard. A young autograph hound mistakes him for Adolphe Menjou. His own agent denigrates him to others. He has to act with a musician named Ish Kabibble! The famous RKO Radio tower that opens Playmates might just as well be signaling a desperate SOS.

But by God, John Barrymore can still act. He knows what's expected of him, giving the audience its money's worth every second he's onscreen. Watch his classic 1934 farce Twentieth Century back to back with Playmates and you'll see very little stylistic difference. The former's script (by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur) and leading lady (Carole Lombard) are admittedly superior by a country mile -- no, ten miles, a million miles. But to the benefit of both movies, Barrymore ignores the meaning of the word "nuance." 

Except for one scene, that is, the most famous in Playmates. Barrymore has been brought over to Kyser's hotel room to give him the lowdown on reciting Shakespeare. As an example, he offers to recite Hamlet's famous soliliquy. Taking a seat, Barrymore transforms himself into... himself. Using his real speaking voice for the first time, he poignantly muses, "It's been a long time" -- no doubt reflecting on when he was the toast of Broadway. The transformation is as electrifying as that of his starring role in Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde two decades earlier. 

Shot in mid-close-up, the all-too-brief scene proves that Barrymore still had it in him to move audiences, making them feel they understood the archaic language even if they really didn't. Tears roll down his face -- is he acting, or remembering what once was? -- as he reaches the graceful, quiet climax of a moment as moving as almost any in film history. 

Whereupon, he slaps the tears from his eyes and reverts to playing the 1941 model of John Barrymore. That he can give two diametrically opposite interpretations of himself  within seconds of each other is proof positive of a talent almost unmatched. It makes one yearn to see him in a modern-dress version of Hamlet.

At least he got billing
over Ginny Simms.
Alas and alack, it was not to be. Playmates was his final movie, an ignoble end to what was once the most illustrious of careers. There are far better Barrymore pictures -- Counsellor-at-Law, Twentieth Century and True Confession to name but three. The Great Man Votes, Arsene Lupin and Svengali when the others aren't available. (I find Grand Hotel a little too long and stuffy.) 

Playmates should be viewed for what it was meant to be -- a silly comedy meant to float its co-star until the next bill came due. If it ever turns up, watch the first half, or at least enough to catch the soliloquy. No actor today, save perhaps Christopher Walken, can take mediocre material and make it compulsively watchable. This, friends, is genius at work.

To put things in perspective, let's compare the three leads of Playmates:

One guy named Kay, the other named Ish.
Kay Kyser: A so-so bandleader/songwriter remembered, if at all, for the radio quiz show Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge -- and giving the world the dopey trumpet-player/comedian with the proto-Jerry Lewis haircut, Ish Kabibble. Retired in 1950, died in 1985.

Patsy Kelly: An obnoxious character actress whose career peaked with a series of two-reelers with Thelma Todd in the mid-'30s, only to devolve into being Tallulah Bankhead's paid companion and assistant. A role in the 1971 Broadway revival of No, No Nanette led to some supporting parts in movies and TV.  Died in 1981.

John Barrymore: One of the greatest actors of his time, expert at both comedy and drama, whose unfortunate final years do not make any less stellar at least a dozen cinematic roles that stand the test of time and then some. A man whose very name is still considered the Rolls Royce of acting, John Barrymore worked until the very end of his life in 1942.

If you were an entertainer, which legacy would you prefer?

The best way to prevent anyone from slipping into alcoholism is to show them this unedited newsreel footage of John Barrymore on his return to Broadway at age 57. Warning: it isn't pretty. Fast forward to the 18-second mark.

1 comment:

Steven Beasley said...

So-so bandleader/songwriter? Whaddya been smokin', bub? Kidding. He cowrote a few of his early songs (none were hits), but wasnt known as a songwriter. Kyser was a hugely popular radio show performer/recording artist at the time (late 30s-late 40s) with (ultimately) 35 top ten records and 11 number ones. The people loved his corny Southern humor, and nobody kidded himself more than Kyser. Ish Kabibble (Merwyn Bogue) was also very well liked and was Kyser's onstage comic foil. Kyser believed silly humor was good for the wartime soldiers and public alike and was the first (before Bob Hope) to broadcast a weekly show from a military facility, playing over 1800 camp shows during WW2. Ginny Simms, Harry Babbitt and Sully Mason were favorite singers in the Kyser band, and the whole aggregation came off as down to earth and approachable, which they were. They made 7 musical comedies, often referencing their popular radio show, KAY KYSER'S COLLEGE OF MUSICAL KNOWLEDGE. Kyser retired suddenly without announcement in 1951 and moved back to his home state of North Carolina, where he contributed much of his time to fundraising and to his church. He refused all interviews about his big band career and would cover his face if the press tried to take his picture. In the early 80s he was named President of the Worldwide church of Christian Science. He married singer/model Georgia Carroll in 1944 and they raised 3 daughters. Check out the first full length biography written on Kyser. KAY KYSER-THE OL' PROFESSOR OF SWING! AMERICA'S FORGOTTEN SUPERSTAR by Steven Beasley. Dat's me.