Monday, April 24, 2006

"THEY SAID IT COULDN'T BE DONE"

.. because it would be a crime against humanity. But did RKO listen? In the grotesque prototype of all of those "old squares v. hip youngsters" teensploitation flicks of the 60s, RKO gleefully nails shut John Barrymore's coffin. By 1941, John Barrymore, the finest Shakespearean performer of the early 20th century, had been committing public suicide for nearly a decade, aided and abetted by a town more than ready to lend the man a hand and make a few bucks in the process. At 20th Century Fox the year before, John was obliged to further his own mutated public image in the terrible The Great Profile (1940). Referred to as a "self-parody", The Great Profile is in actuality a supreme, almost sublime, act of cinematic self-destruction. His health failing as his drinking worsened, John Barrymore's final movie roles reek of depression, helplessness, and a suicidal urge to bring his own celebrity crashing in on itself. His almost desperate need to martyr himself on Hollywood's cross finally led him in 1941 to RKO and the train wreck that is Playmates. He would die the following year.

Kay Kyser was the star, a major radio celebrity of the day known for his "Kollege of Musical Knowledge", a sixty minute musical quiz and comedy show that had been sweeping the nation since 1937. Bespectacled, gregarious, and soft spoken, southern-fried bandleader Kay was a youth culture rep from a time when jitterbugging was considered, in some quarters, to be little better than having sex in public. But, while an engaging and friendly host, Kay Kyser was not a comedian by any stretch of the imagination. On his show, it was his goofy, rhyme-spouting, pre-beatnik stooge Ish Kabibble (Merwyn Bogue) who received most of the laughs. But once the band made the move to Hollywood, Kay, no more a comedian than he was an actor, had to fulfill the role of comic in his films. The results are, more often than not, pretty dire.. although there are some bright spots to be found in You'll Find Out (1940), a bizarre little scare comedy that pits the band against Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Bela Lugosi, happily lampooning their screen images.

It was perhaps because of the success of You'll Find Out that RKO had the notion of pitting Kyser and Co. against another performer who would be willing to engage in "self-parody". Much like Lugosi, Barrymore's true personality and screen image had become inextricably blurred. Both men were also former sex symbols who had become hopelessly typecast and suffered from serious chemical addictions. The difference was that Lugosi was forever convinced that the role that would help him shake off his typecasting and regain his fame was right around the corner; Barrymore knew his number was up. In Playmates, you almost literally get to watch a man die.

The story is a near irrelevant excuse to get Barrymore and Kyser up on the same screen together. Barrymore, playing Barrymore the Boozy Has-Been Shakespearean Ham, is goaded by his agent Lulu Monahan (Patsy Kelly, more obnoxious than ever) into giving Kay Kyser Shakespearean lessons as a publicity stunt so that he (John) can secure a radio sponsor. You see, John Barrymore is a washed-up old hack that no sponsor wants to touch so getting him in the same room as a groovy up-and-comer like Kay Kyser will convince the sponsors that Barrymore is "hep" and therefore relevant. There are endless painful references to exactly how much of a drunken, broken-down has-been Barrymore is throughout the film. His own agent doesn't like him. Kyser's agent, a very young Peter Lind Hayes, doesn't like him either. Kay respects John as a "great actor" but feels that acting lessons are unnecessary (wrong) and that linking his name with Barrymore's is an extremely bad idea (right, for both men). For his part, Barrymore plays up to every last negative stereotype about him; he's rude, drunken, arrogant, and unprofessional. He openly reads his lines from cue cards off-camera, making the farce even more transparent by deliberately misreading words now and again (even referring to Lulu as "Luh-Luh" at one point). The film climaxes with the jaw-dropping horror that is the band's "Shakespeare In Swing" number and Barrymore's attempt to sabotage Kay's performance by making his mouth pucker with alum. Needless to say, Barrymore accidentally ends up also ingesting the alum and the film concludes with the grotesque sight of Barrymore and Kay on stage, mouths puckered, slapping each other on the back in fits of hilarity. Barrymore viciously overplays this scene to gruesome effect.

Horrible as it may be, Playmates at least allows Barrymore one final heartfelt fling at Shakespeare... which, to be frank, does ultimately serve to make the picture seem even more cruel. During their first scene together, Barrymore re-establishes his credentials with Kyser (and the audience) by delivering a remarkably moving, and ultimately heartbreaking, performance of the famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy from Hamlet (III, i, 65-68). What could have been a tired cliche becomes Barrymore's anguished epitaph, a final moment of clarity in which Barrymore tells the audience, for the last time, "This is what you missed."

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6 Comments:

Blogger East Side said...

I'd read about "Playmates" in the past, but your post makes me want to see it, if only as a weird, art-as-life spectacle (if you could call "Playmates" art). It seems like Barrymore made only a handful of movies -- "Counsellor-at-Law" and "The Great Man Votes" come to mind -- that really show his brilliance. Although his outlandish role in "True Confession" is one of the wildest performances I've ever seen.

9:21 AM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

Svengali is easily among that handful. How he managed to slip past an Oscar nomination for that role is beyond me.

See Playmates if you must, but keep a bucket handy. It is truly one of the most loathesome films ever made.

4:32 PM  
Anonymous John Owen said...

Oscar Jaffe in Twentieth Century. The character is a monster, a cartoon, and Barrymore fills him with such sheer magnetism that the movie barely exists when he's not around. Easily John Barrymore's best comic performance.

11:59 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Aaron, you did a beautiful job with this posting. It's the best summation of Barrymore in his final days that I can recall seeing anywhere. Bravo on a splendid essay!

5:09 AM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

Thanks, John..

1:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you know, i'm learning an awful lot now that i'm actually reading this thing.

i'll never forget the occasion i was provided with a copy of You'll Find Out. i asked "what the hell is this?" and my friend said "you'll find out!" boy, did i ever!

-jeffree

9:17 PM  

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