The following article is MovieFanFare’s contribution to the August 12-15 Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. You can find a complete list of participating sites here.
In the massive volume that one could write about the big-screen history of the Barrymore clan, the life of Diana Barrymore would scarcely merit more than a couple of pages. Daughter of John Barrymore and his second wife, author Blanche Oelrichs (who wrote poetry under the pseudonym Michael Strange), Diana was born in 1921. She spent most of her childhood in boarding schools and away from her famous father, who divorced Oelrichs when Diana was seven so that he could pursue and eventually wed actress Delores Costello.
This didn’t keep her from following in the family business, however, and after working in summer stock and regional productions Diana made her Broadway debut at 19. Brought to Hollywood in 1942 by producer Walter Wanger, Universal Pictures signed and heavily promoted the pretty young actress–well, promoted her famous surname, anyway. After leading or co-leading roles in five Universal films from 1942-44 (none of them currently on home video), mixed reviews and a lack of box office success–along with with her drinking and off-camera misbehavior–led the studio to cut ties with Barrymore. A few uncredited bit parts followed (yes, that was Diana in a hotel scene in the original D.O.A.), but by 1951 she and Hollywood had parted ways for good…or so it seemed.
Diana’s career and marital woes (more about both to come) fueled her alcoholism and led to her hospitalization for substance abuse in 1955. Upon her release, she teamed with author Gerold Frank to write Too Much, Too Soon, a best-selling 1957 autobiography that was in the vanguard of “tell-all” celebrity memoirs (gossip queen Hedda Hopper quipped it “told too much too loudly”). The book’s popularity drew interest from several film studios, but Warner Bros.–hoping to follow in the footsteps of an earlier Frank collaboration, Lillian Roth’s I’ll Cry Tomorrow, turned by MGM into an Oscar-winning biopic with Susan Hayward– scooped up the rights before it had even been published.
While such young talents as Carroll Baker and Natalie Wood were said to be considered to play Barrymore, the role ultimately went to Dorothy Malone, who had just won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Written on the Wind (and who will always be remembered by MovieFanFare as the sexy book shop clerk in The Big Sleep). Dressed in dowdy schoolgirl outfits to play a 17-year-old Diana at the start of the picture, though, the 33-year-old Malone comes off as somewhat less believable than Ginger Rogers did in The Major and the Minor. Returning to her family’s New York home from boarding school, all Diana wants is to go to California and spend time with the father she hasn’t seen since she was a toddler. It’s a wish her mother (Neva Patterson) warns the teen will only break her heart, but the headstrong Diana gets her way.
For the all-important part of John Barrymore, Warners dug into its own past and hired 49-year-old Errol Flynn, whose swashbuckling glory days at the studio were a decade behind him and who had been one of “The Great Profile’s” more boisterous drinking buddies. And so it is that we have the eerie spectacle of seeing one of Hollywood’s all-time great leading men, middle-aged and looking even older thanks to alcohol, portraying his late friend, one of Hollywood’s all-time great leading men, as middle-aged and looking even older thanks to alcohol. When Malone tells Flynn that her schoolmates “couldn’t believe I was your daughter, you look so young,” one can’t help but count the seconds until she adds “on the screen, at least.” Still, veteran actor that he is, Flynn is able to project signs of the fire still burning behind Barrymore’s tired eyes. Present-day viewers, aware that the one-time Captain Blood and Robin Hood would be dead less than two years after this film’s release, will sense a special poignancy in Flynn’s performance.
Indeed, the company of his daughter seems to restore Barrymore’s spirit, until he abruptly leaves her–on board his yacht, no less–as he swims away (after falling in the ocean while delivering a soliloquy from Henry V) to join a bunch of friends heading down to Rio. That brief taste of paternal affection was enough, though, to convince Diana to pursue her own acting career. And so it’s a quick dissolve shot or two to her first Broadway performance, where mama Michael, watching in the wings with Diana’s childhood friend Linc (Martin Milner), coolly notes, “They’re not applauding her, they’re applauding her name.”).
Hollywood comes calling in short order, with a fictitious Imperial Pictures filling in for Universal, and Diana is whisked away from reporters meeting her train in California by none other than papa John, who–again against her mother’s wishes–lets her stay at his spartanly furnished mansion. The situation seems to be beneficial for the pair, as Diana prepares for her starring debut and John manages to stay away from his well-hidden alcohol stash, until a drunken phone conversation with his ex-wife sends the actor over the edge and Diana out of his life.
A few months later, a gravely ill John Barrymore dies on the very night of Diana’s picture’s preview, a twist both historically inaccurate and already clichéd by 1958. His passing, combined with the less-than-flattering reviews her film receives, sends her on her own trip down into the bottle. She weds fellow contract player Vincent Bryant (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.), a stand-in for Barrymore’s real-life first spouse, Bramwell Fletcher (you know, the guy who watched as Karloff “went for a little walk” in The Mummy). Bryant tries to keep her focused on her stalled career, but the free-spending and free-drinking ingénue starts missing shooting deadlines and turning down scripts (in real life Diana was “insulted” when Universal wanted to put her in an Abbott and Costello movie) and fills her days with partying.
It’s during one such poolside bash where the bathing suit-clad Barrymore’s cha-cha moves catch the eye of opportunistic “tennis bum” John Howard (Ray Danton, an alum of I’ll Cry Tomorrow), and before you can say “foot fault” he’s worked his way between the couple and becomes hubby number two. Released by the film studio and essentially blackballed out of Hollywood, Diana and her money-draining spouse move back to her mother’s home in Manhattan, where she runs up bills while he spends his spare time hitting tennis balls against the patio wall. When Mom cuts the freeloading pair off and Diana suggests John get a job, he lobs a tennis ball into her face and walks out on his erstwhile meal ticket. Trying to support herself with a summer stock acting job, she wins up with spouse number three, co-star and fellow alcoholic Robert Wilcox (Ed Kemmer). The moment he offers encouragement and tells her “I’ve been sober for eight months,” you know we’re just a scene away from seeing the pair lying on a bed in a shabby apartment, too poor for pay for electricity and too smashed to care when a telegram arrives informing Diana that her mother had passed away. “I should feel something,” she says, but claims that she doesn’t know what to feel. Unfortunately, Malone’s expression in the scene only confirms this.
Their situation leads to Malone’s most bizarre moments in the film: Desperate for money, Diana does a comedy routine in a burlesque theater (which the real Barrymore tried in Australia in the early ’50s). Here, her Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe impersonations lead to cries to disrobe, which the drunken performer starts to do before she’s escorted off the stage and into the alley. Staggering past a drug store window display, Diana imitates models in the store display ads until the sight of her reflection–still wearing her blonde Marilyn wig–leads her to smash the window and leads the shopkeeper to send for the cops to (off-screen) take her to a mental hospital.
While she’s recovering, Barrymore is visited by writer Frank (Robert Ellenstein), who worked with her mother. He suggests that they collaborate on an autobiography as part of her treatment and invites her to stay with his family at their Greenwich Village home once she’s released. Out of the hospital and penniless (and still wearing the gown she had on when she was picked up), Diana starts walking from Midtown Manhattan to Washington Square, when who should she chance to bump into outside his apartment but her old friend Linc. Embarrassed for not recognizing him and trying to beg bus fare, a distraught Diana breaks down and confesses to Linc about the utter mess she’s made of the last 15 years of her life. He calmly listens and–in one of the film’s loopier scenes–demonstrates to her that other people have had it rough by taking off his hat and showing off his balding head (“I guess I’m not the only one life played dirty tricks on,” she says laughingly) before giving her change for the downtown bus and a ride out of the movie.
Seen through the eyes of 21st-century watchers, the at-times campy Too Much, Too Soon mixes the melodramatic mood of the many female-starring show biz biodramas of the 1950s (With a Song in My Heart, The I Don’t Care Girl, Love Me or Leave Me and The Helen Morgan Story, as well as I’ll Cry Tomorrow) with the more sordid (or as sordid as Hollywood could be back then) aspects one comes to expect from contemporary cable TV fare. Star Dorothy Malone was by this time no stranger to over-the-top, soap-style cinema (after all, she had already worked twice for director Douglas Sirk and romanced Liberace in 1955’s Sincerely Yours), but her transitions from yearning teenager to eager starlet to jaded drunk never really jelled for me. The film’s main problem is the presence of Errol Flynn as the legendary John Barrymore in the first half often overwhelms Diana’s story, and his sudden passing leaves both his daughter and the audience looking to fill the void. Once you get away from the slightly ghoulish feel of watching Errol attempt to channel his old friend’s spirit, Too Much, Too Soon is simply–to paraphrase Hedda Hopper–too trite, too often.
In closing, I have to let you know that, sadly, Diana Barrymore was denied the upbeat Hollywood ending that the film suggested. While her book was a success, her substance abuse problems and her family’s legacy (“Damn them for giving me nothing and taking it away before I had it!,” she once said) continued to haunt her. The woman once promoted as “1942’s Most Sensational New Screen Personality” passed away–either from burns suffered in a kitchen fire, or an overdose of alcohol and pills, or perhaps both–in January of 1960. She was 38 years old.