Warren William and Gene Lockhart laugh a little too loud then fight a little too hard throughout the first and second acts of Times Square Playboy before everything comes together just right at the end. The 1936 Warner Brothers release has a lot going for it, pedigree and fine casting leading the way, but when you come right down to it its’ 62 minutes are filled with just enough story to make for a good modern day sit-com episode. That may sound overly harsh so let me qualify, I get a big kick out of this film, and as for my sit-com crack, well the medium as it existed in that day and age unfolded on the big screen and so that’s not intended as any disrespect either.
As to the pedigree, Times Square Playboy has its origins in the original George M. Cohan comedy, The Home Towners, which ran for 62 performances at the Hudson Theatre on Broadway in 1926. Of the play Time Magazine wrote in it’s September 6, 1926 edition that Cohan had written “a comedy of much comic effectiveness, if of no especial dramatic merit.” The clash of Big Benders (originally South Benders) and New Yorkers, best illustrated throughout by Pig Head Bancroft’s Main Street Mind, was an intriguing enough concept to find its way to the screen as soon as 1928 before being remade as Times Square Playboy in ’36, and then in its screen swansong as Ladies Must Live in 1940.
Cohan’s original play starred William Elliott in what would later be Warren William’s lead role of Vic Arnold. Popular thirties character actor Robert McWade would play P.H. Bancroft in both the stage and first film versions, while also notable in the Broadway cast were Chester Morris as Wally Calhoun and the tragic Peg Entwistle in better days as Beth Calhoun, Wally’s sister and Vic’s intended. Besides McWade the 1928 film version of The Home Towners, directed by Bryan Foy for Warner Brothers, would feature Richard Bennett in the Vic Arnold role, Doris Kenyon as Beth Calhoun, silent star Gladys Brockwell as Pig Head’s wife, and Robert Edeson as the Calhoun patriarch. This early talkie was called “a great stride in the right direction for talking films” by the New York Times, who also noted that “it is perhaps the first feature-length production, in which there is no singing, that actually holds the interest through the story.” Photoplay Magazine called it the “Smoothest talkie so far,” though Time Magazine cautioned that beyond Bennett and Kenyon’s dialogue, spectators are “distracted by the jerky sequences, annoyed by the enormous metallic voices issuing from the vitaphone,” and looking back rather than forward wonder, “what sounds even a perfected mechanism could produce which would equal the beautiful silence of old-fashioned cinemas.”
The 1936 film with which we’re concerned with had the working titles Broadway Playboy and The Gentleman from Big Bend, which I find catchiest, but with the downside of shifting focus from Vic Arnold and onto P.H., before settling on Times Square Playboy. Production began in January of 1936 with William McGann directing and Home Towners’ 1928 director Bryan Foy on board as supervisor. In what’s possibly the most entertaining document I’ve seen from out of Warner Brothers’ Warren William archive files, William engages in a dispute with McGann and Foy over six transcribed pages that read like an Abbott and Costello routine. At issue is Vic Arnold’s age, William insists that the character comes off as being fifty or sixty years old as he’s written and he won’t stand for it. Foy brings up older characters played by other actors, Fredric March (WW: I’ve nothing to do with March.) and John Boles (WW: I don’t care what John Boles does–I’m only looking out for myself.) before switching to the tactic or reminding William he originally agreed to the lines as written (WW: I didn’t okay this!) and finally agreeing to several small cuts suggested by William which shaved the character’s age down to forty at most. Richard Bennett, who’d played Arnold in the previous screen version was 58 at the time, so William likely had a point.
In my opening I called Times Square Playboy a sit-com, well, here’s the situation: William’s Vic Arnold, an approximately (ahem) 40 year old high roller who heads a brokerage under his name, puts in a call to his old home town pal P.H. Bancroft (Gene Lockhart), who stayed in native Big Bend with his wife Lottie (Kathleen Lockhart), inviting them to the big city so P.H. can be best man at his wedding. P.H., affectionately tabbed Pig Head by Vic, hits the town with his old pal and finds himself somewhat soured on Vic’s much younger intended, Beth Calhoun (June Travis), prior to even meeting her because of the impression her brother, Wally (Dick Purcell), a Vic Arnold employee, as well as Beth’s ex-beau, Joe Roberts (Craig Reynolds), make on him. After P.H. meets 20-year-old Beth, he and Vic tie one on off camera before we return to them staggering back into Vic’s apartment.
It’s here that P.H., aided by the shots Vic keeps pouring for him, tells his old pal about the problems he has with Beth. He first rips into Wally, whom he hilariously dubs “The Personality Kid,” before raising issues of an investment Vic has made with Beth and Wally’s father (Granville Bates), and finally earning himself a good smack across the face from his old buddy when he alludes to Beth’s fondness for her ex, Joe Roberts, a young pro football player for the New York Giants, whom P.H. assumes is just another hanger on. Vic’s slap ends he and P.H.’s constant chuckling and initiates a separation best summed up by Vic’s attempts to apologize and P.H.’s raging on the war path which culminates in his telling off the entire Calhoun family.
Mr. Calhoun, whom son Wally has mentioned to P.H. had his liquor business shut down by Prohibition, is called a “rum soaked bartender” by P.H., while he crowns Wally a “boy bandit” and “confidence man,” and Beth a “gold digging night club singer,” before telling the entire Calhoun clan that they’re “Broadway sharpshooters, the whole lot of you,” and threatening to call the police on them if they don’t leave his hotel room. Obviously this doesn’t go over too well with the Calhouns, who leave in a huff vowing never to have anything to do with old P.H. again. Fine by P.H. except Vic finagles his way into the Bancrofts hotel room and aided by the wrestling holds taught to him by his trainer/butler Casey (Barton MacLane) manages to explain his side of the story to P.H. and bring his old friend back to his senses. Now Vic has P.H. back as best man, but the very idea threatens the marriage itself as Beth and the rest of the Calhouns will have none of old Pig Head. The rest of Times Square Playboy is about healing those wounds, not without a major ($40,000!) setback along the way.
Warren William is once again cast as a self-made man of great fortune though with the Code taking the edge off him he’s got a much better disposition than found in his more classic earlier roles. Vic Arnold must have been pretty savvy behind office doors because he comes off as just a run-of-the-mill guy outside the office, where all but the first scene of Times Square Playboy takes place. Even his best pal from Big Bend thinks Vic’s still got quite a bit of rube in him, but that’s more P.H.’s personality flaw than Vic’s. Gene Lockhart brings just the right amount of Main Street to P.H. Bancroft, and Lockhart’s real-life wife Kathleen provides laughs through good-natured henpecking and bickering as P.H.’s wife Lottie.
The beautiful June Travis came to Times Square Playboy just off of what is considered her most important role, billed behind only James Cagney and Pat O’Brien in Ceiling Zero (1936), and does a fine job in living up to our expectations as the type of girl it’d take for Vic Arnold to fall for. Travis reminded me a lot of another Warner’s favorite Margaret Lindsay and is actually outstanding when you consider she was just 21 at the time of Times Square Playboy’s filming, though I will say she was better playing Beth sweet than she was playing her angry and annoyed. Perhaps she was just too sweet to manage otherwise.
Despite her youth Travis had already appeared in small roles in two previous Warren William pictures at Warner Brothers, Don’t Bet on Blondes (1935) and The Case of the Lucky Legs (1935), a Perry Mason entry which has previously been reviewed on this site. Her role in Times Square Playboy is much meatier and Travis even had the opportunity to sing an entire song (Looking for Trouble) when we first meet her under Beth’s stage name Fay Melody. An interesting aside given her previously mentioned resume, Travis would play Della Street in The Case of the Black Cat (1936), but her Mason would be portrayed by Ricardo Cortez, not Warren William. As her brother, Wally, Dick Purcell could grate on the nerves a little, possibly why I got such a kick out of P.H.’s labeling him “The Personality Kid.” There wasn’t a lot of Wally but when he was around it was a lot of Wally.
My two favorite characters in Times Square Playboy both played much lesser roles. First Barton MacLane, always the tough guy whether cop or criminal, had the chance to play a light-hearted tough guy as Vic’s trainer/butler Casey. Trainer? Vic liked to keep in shape and we get to see he and Casey both wrestling (I saw Gene Lockhart’s stand-in in his wrestling scene, but it looked like WW and Barton McLane were really going at it!) and jogging. Casey gets to be Casey when he’s Vic’s trainer, but he’s a picture of politeness when he slips into his butler persona. He also had the laugh out loud line of the film for me towards the end when Lockhart’s P.H. grabs Purcell’s Wally and announces to his victim “That’s a half-nelson,” to which Casey enters in butler persona and politely remarks “Smartly executed, sir.”
And speaking of laughs, he has probably all of five minutes of screen time, if that, but Granville Bates is a riot as Beth and Wally’s world-weary father. Perhaps not as world-weary as he just is Calhoun-weary, Bates’ Mr. Calhoun cuts loose when giving P.H. an aggressive rub down, but otherwise comes off as an exasperated old-timer who’s seen it all throughout. Bates’ best line is in reply to Purcell, whose Wally threatens to “clip Bancroft right on the button,” leaving his father to lean forward and caution, “Now now, son, not on the button,” before slipping back out of sight.
At its heart Times Square Playboy is about the dangers of both the Main Street Mind that Wally accuses P.H. of having and the Wall Street Mind that P.H. feels he’s surrounded by in the big city. Both are dangerous and each is the root cause of the tension throughout Times Square Playboy. P.H. is really only guilty of looking out for his old small-town friend, but in the years since their friendship Vic has adapted to big city culture causing his ribs of hayseed to annoy P.H. much more than they would have if the men were on equal footing. While the audience is led to believe P.H.’s fears of the Calhouns are well-founded that lead isn’t strong enough, assuming it was the intention. There’s really very little doubt that the Calhouns don’t have the best of intentions and that P.H. is the one who’s mixed up, though I will say there comes a moment towards the end of Times Square Playboy where Vic begins to see P.H.’s point and only then did I find myself having the slightest doubt about the Calhouns.
The period review from the New York Times goes out of its way to praise June Travis on a job well done and states that William and the Lockharts do a commendable job as well but overall finds Times Square Playboy “a noisy comedy which manages to be alternately amusing and dull.” Personally I never found it dull, it just zips along too quick, but I could agree with noisy, however for me the amusing moments overcame the noise in a film I’ve now watched 8-10 times over the past few years.
Overall on a 4-star scale I’d call Times Square Playboy a 2-1/2 in general and a 3 on a Warren William centered scale. Like our previous couple of Perry Mason entries this is Warren William cutting loose and having fun, at least that’s how his character plays on the screen.
One final note, The Home Towners was remade a third and final time by Warner’s in 1940 under yet another title, Ladies Must Live. The characters names have changed, but this time it’s Wayne Morris in the lead with Rosemary Lane in the June Travis role. P.H. is still Pig Head, though the full name of Roscoe Karns’ character is Pete H. Larrabee this time around. Of Ladies Must Live Thomas H. Pryor wrote in the New York Times that it “offers, even in its best moments, only tolerable entertainment.” Perhaps it was on that note that Cohan’s play was then shelved for all-time moving forward.