Bandleader and radio star Kay Kyser signed with RKO in the late 1930s to star in a series of films directed by David Butler, who was also behind a number of films with Bob Hope and Shirley Temple. There was That’s Right—You’re Wrong in 1939, You’ll Find Out in 1940, and in winter of 1941 came Playmates. Kyser was a particularly dull screen presence, but Playmates counteracts that by placing him against one of the biggest screen personalities out there—John Barrymore.
The great Shakespearean actor was approaching what would have been his thirtieth year of film acting, but as of late the notorious drunk had sunk into a career of embarrassing B movies. Playmates, at least, was a chance for Barrymore to spoof himself much like he does in Howard Hawks’ comedy Twentieth Century and in Dinner at Eight to a lesser extent. In both those films, he plays actors who are variations on himself, but in Playmates his character’s name is literally John Barrymore. He commits admirably to the part and all the film’s absurdities, but he’s clearly exhausted throughout, a much-deteriorated version of the actor we know from Grand Hotel and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Kyser (also cast as himself) and Barrymore are conned by their publicity-hungry press agents (Patsy Kelly and Peter Lind Hayes) into working together on a grand Shakespearean production. Though Barrymore’s character is a trained Shakespearean actor, Kyser’s has no real acting experience, and so the agents convince Barrymore to train Kyser. The two clash over their work and the women (band member Ginny Simms and Mexican Spitfire star Lupe Vélez, respectively). As a result, a film with the potential to be a scathing critique of the entertainment industry, or even just a crazy screwball comedy, ends up feeling painfully by the book despite including plenty of odd sequences. Ultimately, the film is most notable for being Barrymore’s last—the actor finally drank himself to death a few months later in May 1942.
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