Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Too Much, Too Soon

I have this pleasant fantasy of Errol Flynn not dying in 1959 at the premature age of 50, but living a decade or two on. He would be one of the prime beneficiaries of the nostalgia boom that swept the country in the 1960s and early 1970s and would be justly celebrated as the great screen presence – and actor – that he was.

Always critical of the action roles he was assigned at Warner Bros., Flynn would look at back at those films and, much like frequent co-star Olivia deHavilland, realize that “We made some pretty terrific movies there. I had no idea.”

I picture an avuncular Flynn, circa 1974 or 1975, as the latest American Film Institute Life Achievement Award winner. The film clips play to a rapt house and thunderous applause greets each clip. Former co-stars pay him homage, and the younger crowd bows in worshipful adoration. Even former boss and scourge Jack Warner pays respect to his former bad boy star, and he and Flynn have put the past behind them, enjoy the occasional social drink together and reminisce about their former battles. .

The sad thing is I know exactly what he would look like as he sits at the table enjoying the AFI honor. It’s because I recently watched “Too Much, Too Soon” (1958), one of Flynn’s last pictures, and Flynn, at 48 years of age, looks much, much older. Like a 70+-year-old man would look.

In the film, the story of actress Diana Barrymore (Dorothy Malone), Flynn plays Diana’s father, the legendary John Barrymore, and he’s first rate. When Barrymore dies about halfway through, the movie never recovers and slogs its way through another hour before mercifully wrapping up.
Errol Flynn and John Barrymore were great buddies and drinking companions, so you know Flynn took extra care to deliver a good performance. And deliver he does, but boy is it hard to watch, especially when you consider only 20 years have passed since his triumph in “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938). Rather than two decades passing, Flynn’s appearance looks more like four or five decades have passed.

Much heavier and jowly, with a husky voice, there are times it looks like Flynn can barely finish a scene. Still, that magnetism is still there and can’t be denied. One can understand the adoration that Diana has for her father, who probably loved his daughter in his own way, but was too caught up in the whirlwind of his own life to give her the attention and love she desired. .

Diana Barrymore had a minor career as an actress. Her film credits are few and her starring roles were in a couple of Universal pictures I’ve never seen, “Eagle Squadron” (1942) with Robert Stack and “Between Us Girls” (1942) as the daughter of Kay Francis.

Unfortunately she suffered from the same demons as her father, and was drinking regularly to keep the pain away. The problem with the movie is she’s not that interesting a character.

Barrymore published her autobiography, “Too Much, Too Soon” in 1957, and the movie followed a year later. She did not live long to enjoy the book’s success as she died of a combined overdose of alcohol and sleeping pills in 1960. She was 38 years old. (I’ve also read she died as a result of third degree burns following a kitchen fire).

The always underrated Malone is excellent in this film, ably playing Diana as a shy little girl in awe of her famous father, to aspiring actress to the hellish spiral downward. It’s a tough and gusty performance, and I think it would be more remembered today if the film were better.

I’m sure the film is highly fictitious. There’s a scene where she and the cast and crew come out of a preview of “All Through the Night” (1942), the Bogart picture, and proclaim it an utter disaster, which will require lots of re-shooting and the eventual editing out of all of Diana Barrymore’s scenes. I’ve never heard that about that film, and can’t conceive that the well-oiled Warner Bros. machinery ever allowed the so-called disaster to be previewed like that.

Diana’s taste in men didn’t work out too well either. First husband was the much older Bramwell Fletcher, who is probably best remembered today for his role in “The Mummy” (1932), and his insane screams when he first sees the walking corpse of Im-ho-tep. In “Too Much, Too Soon” this role of the older matinee idol actor has been re-named Vincent Bryant (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.)

Second husband was a tennis player named John Howard, played in the movie by a spectacularly oily Ray Danton. I don’t know what Howard was like in real life, but here he’s portrayed as the ultimate Hollywood leech. (In reality, Howard was convicted of later participating in white slavery!)

A third husband was Robert Wilcox, played here by Edward Kemmer. According to the Wikipedia entry on Diana Barrymore, “Diana might have found Wilcox to be the love of her life, but he nearly beat her to death in one of his assaults.” Boy, that name sounded familiar. Didn’t Robert Wilcox star in a Republic serial? I looked him up and sure enough, Robert Wilcox played the hero Copperhead in the great Republic serial “Mysterious Doctor Satan.” (1940). The Copperhead a wife beater? Very disheartening and I don’t know if I will be ever to enjoy that serial like I have in the past. I always try to separate the person from the actor, but wife beating is very tough to forgive.

The film was directed by Art Napoleon, and it’s only of three films he directed. It’s not very well directed, overall. The 121-minute running time really drags, but there are individual sequences that are very well done.

Early in the film, the young Diana, so happy to be with her father on a fishing trip, talks and talks and talks the whole time, and we can see John trying so hard not to tell her to be quiet. They’re sitting on the deck at night when another boat approaches. We never see who is on the boat, just the boat’s outline through the fog. It’s like a ghost ship, a metaphor for the eternal wanderlust in John Barrymore’s heart. We hear voices from the boat. They’re social acquaintances of John, and they invite him to come to Rio with them for additional festivities. Barrymore looks wistfully at his daughter before swimming away from his boat to join the party, waving goodbye to Diana.

There’s also a painful scene were a drunken Diana performs an impromptu striptease to a bored and jaded audience.

Helping the film enormously is the score by Ernest Gold, with a highly dramatic piano-based theme showcased throughout. Flynn was remarkably lucky with his musical accompaniment throughout his career, and always received good musical support.

There was talk of a possible Supporting Actor nomination for Flynn for “The Sun Also Rises” (1957) but it didn’t come to pass. A Supporting Actor nom would have been appropriate for “Too Much, Too Soon” as well. He’s that good in it.

You can have a good film with bad things in it, and a bad film with good things in it. “Too Much, Too Soon” has two very good performances in a very mediocre film.


Classic Film and TV Cafe said...

Kevin, I think this was the best of Flynn's last performances (better than THE SUN ALSO RISES, much better than THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN, and I don't count CUBAN REBEL GIRLS). I think he channels his friend Barrymore quite effectively and deserved a supporting actor nom. Once Barrymore dies in the movie, though, the picture loses a lot of steam for me. That said, some parts are almost campy fun, such as when Diana tells Danton's character to get a job and (if my fading memory serves) he says something like: "I play tennis, baby."

Anonymous said...

Very interesting review. It caught my eye because I've recently watched one of Diana Barrymore's movies (I had never heard of her before), Between Us Girls with Robert Cummings and Kay Francis; she does well in it and it is clear to perceive the producers intentions to cash in her last name as they make her character an actress (she starts off playing a really old woman, like Cagney does in Yankee Doodle Dandy, pretends to be a twelve year old through out and finishes by playing Joan of Arc in another play). I do want to watch Too Much Too Soon, see how the movie deals with her tragic story.

Kevin Deany said...

Thanks, everyone for your comments.

The comment on "Between Us Girls" was interesting. I would love to see a Diana Barrymore performance, and this one sounds fascinating. Thanks for sending that.

Classic, I do like his John Barrymore performance very much. It's too bad the film is such a long haul.

Kevin Deany said...
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Moira Finnie said...

Kevin, I have not seen this film since childhood, but you confirmed my hazy memories of Too Much, Too Soon as a rather uneven but deeply affecting movie in certain scenes. You also echoed my own inarticulated longing to have seen an older Errol Flynn--perhaps happily and creatively occupied with work as a master character actor--after all the folderol of his middle years was swept away. Alas, we will never see him honored for his acting gifts by AFI or even AMPAS, though his evergreen performances and growing power as an actor (despite his self-destructive life) certainly warranted it.

Btw, for a candid interview with the real Diana Barrymore, you might be interested in seeing the video linked below of an interview with Mike Wallace from July, 1957 after the publication of her autobiography. The video is provided online by the Univ. of Texas at Austin Harry Ransom Center. At 36, Diana seems to be an intelligent if worn individual, and a bit vulnerable as well:
Diana Barrymore Interview

ClassicBecky said...

Kevin, your vignette about what might have been for Errol Flynn brought some tears to my eyes. I've loved him since I was a kid, and still do. I agree that his acting ability was never really given the credit he deserved. His good looks and charm masked the fact that he was a damn good actor. He broke my heart in Too Much, Too Soon, and in The Sun Also Rises. You are to be thanked for an homage to him in your article about a movie that, without him, would have been pure schlock. Thanks, Kevin.

Kevin Deany said...

Moira: That was a fascinating interview with Diana Barrymore. Thanks so much for providing the link. Becky, thank you for your incredibly kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.