Playmates (1941): David Butler’s Comedy with Music, Starring John Barrymore, Lupe Velez, May Robson

From the Archives:

David Butler directed Playmates, a comedy written by James V. Kern and starring Kay Kyser, John Barrymore, Lupe Vélez, Ginny Simms, May Robson and Patsy Kelly.

Lulu Monahan (Patsy Kelly), a press agent for John Barrymore, who plays himself, tries to get a sponsor for his radio program.

Lulu and the agent for bandleader Kay Kyser (who also plays himself) make up a story that the great Shakespearean actor will teach Kyser how to play Shakespeare.

This was the last feature of John Barrymore, one of the greatest Shakespearean actors and one of the more charming pre-Code stars, who here looks washed up.

Playmates is a showcase for swing band leader Kay Kyser, a conductor who spends most of his time soft shoeing rather than conducting.

The tabloids love him, reporting on things like his afternoons spent with his grandma, but there’s no excitement.

However, his press agent runs into Barrymore’s press agent, who is flustered because the star has such reckless reputation– nothing he does can get him in the newspapers any more, not even his alcoholism and divorces.

Too close to home, it’s a movie about a drunk, desperate man named John Barrymore who will cheapen himself for a bit of money, who stars a drunk, desperate John Barrymore who cheapens himself for a bit of money.

By turn ironic, playful and merciless, the movie turns the character of Barrymore into a histrionic and pathetic creature.

Barrymore’s personal life has received much attention before and since his death. He struggled with alcohol abuse from the age of 14, was married and divorced four times, and declared bankruptcy.  Much of his later work, such as Playmates, involved self-parody and the portrayal of drunken has-beens.

His obituary in Washington Post observed that “with the passing of the years – and as his private life became more public – he became, despite his genius in the theater, a tabloid character.”

Barrymore’s contribution to the art of cinematic acting began to fade” after the mid-1930s, but he is still considered by man to be the most influential and idolized actor of his day.”

The film was released on December 26, 1941, by RKO Radio Pictures.

Cast

Kay Kyser as Kay Kyser
John Barrymore as John Barrymore
Lupe Vélez as Carmen Del Toro
Ginny Simms as Ginny Simms
May Robson as Grandma Kyser
Patsy Kelly as Lulu Monahan
Peter Lind Hayes as Peter Lindsay
Ish Kabibble as Ish Kabibble