A couple of years ago, I fell asleep in front of late-night TV and woke up to discover that the universe had changed.
It now contained a man known as Kay Kyser. In my old universe, he never existed – I’m sure of it. In my new universe, he was the leader of a 1940s swing band, just like Glenn Miller or Benny Goodman. Furthermore, he was the leader of a swing band and the star of a Hollywood movie.
The movie that was playing was Playmates, made in 1941, whose main claim to fame is that it was the last film made by John Barrymore. But the star of the movie was Kay Kyser, this man I’d never heard of, and at first I wasn’t even sure if the movie character was meant to be real or fictional.
Some basic research showed that Kyser was not only real, but the star of SEVEN Hollywood movies, the leader of a swing band that boasted 11 number one hit records, and the host of the long-running NBC radio program The Kollege of Knowledge.
The members of Kyser’s band contributed to the leader’s popularity. Among these was the comic cornet player Ish Kabibble (Merwyn Bogue) , whose antics may have influenced the early comedy of Jerry Lewis and inspired the creation of Mad Magazine’s “Alfred E. Neuman” mascot.
In Playmates, John Barrymore played himself – a washed-up old actor whose health problems and money troubles force him to take on a demeaning role in some low-budget piece of fluff. And it’s all true. The camera exposes how alcohol and hard living have reduced a great actor to a shambling wreck who can no longer remember his lines, and is forced to read them from a blackboard off-camera.
One moment in the film makes fascinating viewing. It’s the scene where Barrymore summons up the shadow of his talent to perform the soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (recalling one of his early successes on stage) with the visibly dawning awareness that it is the last time he will ever recite those words.
“Method acting? There are quite a few methods. Mine involves a lot of talent, a glass, and some cracked ice.”
– John Barrymore (1882-1942)