Friday, December 18, 2009

Movies I’ve stared at recently on TCM #49 (“Evenin’, chillun—how you-all?” edition)

Kay Kyser, “The Ol’ Perfessor” himself, was the subject of two feature films shown on Turner Classic Movies yesterday and because I had nothing pressing on my schedule I decided to tune in even though I’d seen both films before. The first on the agenda was Kyser’s debut film for R-K-O, That's Right - You're Wrong (1939), which allows the bandleader to play himself in a fun little programmer that many consider the best of the seven films he cranked out for the studio between 1939 and 1944. The plot is pretty straight-forward: J.D. Forbes (Moroni Olsen), the head of Four Star Pictures, is anxious to sign Kay and the members of his musical aggregation—including Ginny Simms, Harry Babbitt, Sully Mason and the irrepressible Ish Kabibble (the nom de cinema of Merwyn Bogue)—to a picture contract to help the studio out of its slump. This project gets dumped in the lap of toadying producer Stacey Delmore (Adolphe Menjou), who orders his Academy Award-winning writers Tom Village (Edward Everett Horton) and Dwight Cook (Hobart Cavanaugh) to fashion a story for Kay. Village and Cook are unable to come up with any kind of hook, so Delmore schemes to force Kyser out of the deal—but when the writers tip Kay off as to Delmore’s plan, Rocky Mount, NC’s favorite son turns the tables on Delmore and the producer ends up paying Kyser off for the rest of his contract.

Wrong is a slight-but-amusing musical comedy that benefits from a great cast of supporting players: in addition to those named, Dennis O’Keefe plays Kay’s publicity man (a role he reprised in Kyser’s follow-up, You'll Find Out [1940]), May Robson is “Grandma” Kyser, Lucille Ball is one of the studio’s big name stars (“Sandra Sand”) and TDOY fave Roscoe Karns a publicity sharpster named Mal Stamp. Sadly, Roscoe and Lucy aren’t present in the film nearly as much as O’Keefe and Robson…which sort of detracts from the enjoyment of the movie because both of their characters are a tad on the obnoxious side (and when an individual manages to out-obnoxious Karns this does not bode well for your feature). Lucy is seen later in the film to good advantage in Kay’s “screen test,” and it’s a testament to her talent that she’s able to get big laughs despite playing “straight-woman” to Kyser’s slapstick antics.

The screen test sequence is among the film’s highlights, but Wrong really doesn’t start getting entertaining until the homestretch when the movie showcases a recreation of the radio program that brought Kyser and Company to national fame, The Kollege of Musical Knowledge. There are some interesting bits in the film, particularly a sequence that features gossip columnist mavens Sheilah Graham, Hedda Hopper, Jimmy Starr and Erskine Johnson—not to mention Seein’ Stars cartoonist Feg Murray. Though much of the comedy hasn’t dated well, the music is first-rate: among the numbers performed are The Answer is Love, The Little Red Fox (Nyah, Nyah, You Can’t Catch Me) and a cute duet from Babbitt and Simms, Chatterbox.

Playmates (1941) – When I first mentioned this mini-Kyser fest back in September I described this third Kyser vehicle that was the cinematic swan song of The Great Profile, John Barrymore, thusly: “Words cannot even begin to describe how awful this last movie is. You will simply have to see for yourself.” This resulted in an e-mail response from a reader who took clear exception to my take on the film—I’ll keep his identity secret but the body of the missive he sent read as such:

“[Playmates] Is a great little movie, you friggin' idiot.”

I’ll say this for the guy. He didn’t pussyfoot around. He also added zero evidence to back up his claim, which means I can stand by my original interpretation without hemming and hawing on whether or not I may have misjudged the movie. I don’t agree with Leonard Maltin that Playmates is “crude and tasteless” or my Facebook friend Hal Erickson’s belief that the film is “much-maligned”; I simply stand by my statement that it’s an awful film. If you doubt me and have an hour-and-a-half that you do not particularly want to get back any time soon, I invite you to give it a look-see.

Here’s the plot: in order to snag a lucrative radio contract for her flat-broke client John Barrymore, press agent Lulu Monohan (Patsy Kelly) teams up with Kay Kyser’s publicity man Peter Lindsey (Peter Lind Hayes) and plants a story in the papers that Kay wants to become a Shakespearean actor and will be asking Barrymore to coach him in this pursuit. Barrymore, who loathes the very idea of associating with Kyser, is forced to take on the bandleader as his pupil because he owes the U.S. government $8700 in back taxes and such a charitable act will also get him in good with vitamin sponsor Nelson Pennypacker (George “Gramps” Cleveland). While Barrymore is reluctantly helping Kay develop a flair for the buskin, he becomes infatuated with vocalist Ginny Simms—much to the displeasure of John’s girlfriend, female bullfighter Carmen del Toro (Lupe Velez)…who gets back at Barrymore by cozying up to Kyser. Just before the two men are set to perform for charity at the Long Island (“Lawn Guy Land”) Shakespeare Festival, Barrymore plans to sabotage Kyser’s stage debut by putting alum in his atomizer (come on, John—that only works in cartoons) but it backfires, leaving the Profile speechless. Kyser and Company manage to salvage the proceedings by performing a “swing” version of Romeo and Juliet that also features Hayes, Simms, Sully Mason, Harry Babbitt, Ish Kabibble and the usual suspects from the Kollege of Musical Knowledge…and Barrymore is awarded the radio contract by Pennypacker at the end.

It’s hard to believe that two years prior to this film, Barrymore appeared in a pair of films that showcased his deft dramatic and comedic talents (Midnight [1939] and The Great Man Votes [1939]) despite the actor’s drinking and troubled personal life. Playmates was his last movie, and watching him perform in it is positively painful. You can see his eyes darting around furtively for the cue cards (to his credit, Barrymore refused to memorize lines for any film he appeared in because he had spent so many years learning Shakespeare by rote and he wasn’t about to lose any of that for “inane movie dialogue”) and in one scene—where he performs the famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet—you can see his hands tremble as if he were trying to shake off a case of the DT’s. I love watching Barrymore work in comedies, particularly those in which his character is an unabashed ham (Twentieth Century [1934], Hold That Co-ed [1938]) but his antics in Playmates are simply unbearable to watch; a man in his condition simply cannot be laughed at.

Is there anything to recommend in Playmates? Well, as always the music is great—and it’s kind of hard to dislike any movie that features Patsy Kelly (I like the Andy Hardy joke she makes when she makes a wisecrack to Barrymore about “Love finds Andy’s hardening of the arteries”), but May Robson returns in this film as the meddlesome “Grandma” Kyser and Lupe Velez—doing her Mexican Spitfire schtick—is just as annoying as May. There’s also no reference to the Musical Knowledge program (how writers James V. Kern, M.M. Musselman and Arthur Phillips could have passed up the opportunity to put the pompous Barrymore on Kyser’s show is a question for the ages) and to be honest, Kyser and Company pretty much used up their bag of tricks in the first two films (and after Playmates, they had four more to go). Watch this film at your own peril.

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