Saturday, September 8, 2012

Times Square Playboy (Warner Bros., 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Times Square Playboy, a 1936 Warners “B” directed by William McGann from a script by Roy Chanslor — both strictly “B” talents — though the basis for the story was a 1926 play called The Home Towners by George M. Cohan, a legendary actor, singer, dancer and writer and very much on the “A” list. It starred Warren William and June Travis, though it was obviously a cheapie Warners threw together just to use up their final commitments to William, who had already served notice he was leaving when his contract expired and going out to freelance. (In 1937 he landed the part as the villainous husband in Madame X at MGM but his subsequent career was disappointing, distinguished only by his droll appearances in the Lone Wolf series films at Columbia and his off-casting as a murderer in Edgar G. Ulmer’s PRC melodrama Out of the Night, a.k.a. Strange Illusion, in 1945 — that was actually a modern-dress reboot of the plot of Hamlet, with Jimmy Lydon as the Hamlet character and William surprisingly effective as the Claudius equivalent.)  Anyway, Times Square Playboy turns out to be one of the most misnamed film ever made, since whatever his romantic past had been, Vic Arnold (Warren William) is engaged from the start of the film to marry a woman half his age, Beth Calhoun (June Travis), who works in a nightclub as a singer under the name “Fay Melody” and whom he met when he hired her brother Wally (Dick Purcell) to work at his brokerage firm. He’s also bankrolling Beth’s and Wally’s father Mort (Granville Bates) in his bottle-washing invention and has bought a home for Mort and his wife Nellie (Dorothy Vaughan). The plot kicks off when Vic invites P. H. Bancroft (Gene Lockhart), his old boyhood friend from Big Bend, Texas, to come to New York to be the best man at his wedding — and P. H., who’s generally addressed as “Ben” but whom Vic years before also nicknamed “Pighead,” jumps to all the wrong conclusions and decides that Beth is a gold-digger out to marry a rich man twice her age in order to exploit him for the sake of herself and her no-good family while she tricks around with her former boyfriend, professional football player Joe Roberts (Craig Reynolds).

This is one of the few movies from the 1930’s that even acknowledges the existence of professional football, and we’re later told in the script that Joe is independently wealthy and actually has more money than Vic — though the “roo” moustache Craig Reynolds wears throughout the film (including the brief snippets with titles under them announcing both the actors’ names and the roles they play — common in 1930’s movies, especially at Warners — a welcome form of credits I’m sorry isn’t used anymore) was enough to fool us as well as Ben that he was up to no good. Also in the dramatis personae are Gene Lockhart’s real-life wife Kathleen as his long-suffering wife in the story, and Vic’s butler Casey (Barton MacLane, refreshingly speaking instead of shouting most of his lines and actually showing off a bit of a sense of humor) who’s also what would now be called his personal trainer, since a large part of his duties seems to consist of partnering Vic on his workouts. Anyway, Ben tells off the Calhouns and they want nothing to do with Vic — Beth breaks up with him and Wally threatens to quit his company — and there’s a lot of fooforaw until Beth sends back the $40,000 necklace Vic gave her, the case turns out to be empty and the Calhouns descend on Vic’s penthouse apartment en masse — whereupon Ben, anxious to get the Calhouns together under Vic’s roof to get them back on speaking terms, reveals that he palmed the bracelet (had he seen the 1931 film of The Maltese Falcon?), Vic and the Calhoun family reunite and all ends well with the marriage still on schedule.

The Home Towners was first filmed by Warner Bros. in 1928 as one of their early talkies (it’s unclear whether it was a full-talkie or a part-talkie because it’s lost — apparently not even the soundtrack records survive for this one) and it’s clear that though Warren William is nominally the male lead, Gene Lockhart is playing the central character (I’m assuming his is the role Cohan himself played in the stage production in 1926); he has more screen time than anyone else in the film and it’s clear the focus is on him and his character arc, not William’s. As Charles pointed out, it’s a one-joke movie and the one joke is not particularly funny — three years after William’s key role in Gold Diggers of 1933, a movie with some strong plot similarities to this one (and also a remake of one Warners had made just a few years before when the talkies were new!) but one with genuine irony and wit (his part in Gold Diggers of 1933 has similarities to both male leads here, in that he falls in love with a showgirl himself but still remains committed to seeing that his brother, played by Dick Powell, doesn’t marry one) — but then again both William and Warners were going through the motions on this one (they’d already rewritten the ending of his 1935 film Living on Velvet so that its heroine, Kay Francis, ended up with George Brent rather than William at the end, just to get back at him for his announced intention of leaving the studio once his contract was finished!), with Warners giving him a “B” remake to run out his contract and William essentially “phoning in” his performance. Though the focus of this one is on the men, it’s the women who turn in the best performance: June Travis is attractive, perky and has a nice voice (I’m assuming it’s hers and not a voice double) and Kathleen Lockhart does a nice long-suffering voice-of-reason part in the ZaSu Pitts manner. Still, Times Square Playboy is a 62-minute movie that even at that length tends to overstay its welcome.