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Too Much, Too Soon (DVD Review)

5 Apr, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Available now via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Dorothy Malone, Errol Flynn, Ray Danton, Efrem Zimbalist Jr.

A few years before her death in 1960 at age 38 from a combo of booze and sleeping pills, actress Diana Barrymore (John’s daughter and half-sister of actor John Drew Barrymore — Drew’s dad) penned a popular tell-all biography in 1957.

Selling points — the kind that got her on Mike Wallace’s then provocative and smoke-filled interview show, which Mad Magazine once parodied with gusto — dealt with her squandered film career, stays in a sanitariums and less-than-ideal choice in men.

This movie version came near the end of a short-lived Hollywood cycle in the mid-to-late 1950s that dealt with the pain of femme show biz celebrities: think Love Me or Leave Me (Doris Day as singer Ruth Etting); I’ll Cry Tomorrow (Susan Hayward as singer-actress Lillian Roth); and The Helen Morgan Story (Ann Blyth as the singer-actress opposite a very young Paul Newman). Alcohol figured prominently in the last two sagas as it does here, but in this case, the disease ran in a famous family, which is what makes this very spotty film worth a look.

Headlining here not long after winning a 1956 supporting Oscar for Written on the Wind, Dorothy Malone is more than acceptable as Barrymore, but a lot of gas goes out of the picture with the death of John (Errol Flynn) at almost exactly the halfway point. Flynn had his own boozy demons, largely squandered his own career as well and died about a year-and-a-half after Too Soon’s release. He did, though, make a kind of artistic comeback in twilight, dating from his surprise casting in producer Darryl F. Zanuck poorly received 1957 adaptation of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, in which fourth- and fifth-billed Flynn and Eddie Albert got the best reviews. 

This movie doesn’t sugarcoat the senior Barrymore’s drinking, but Flynn’s is a performance of touching dignity most of the time (he and John were close friends in real life). Malone gets off to a rocky start when she has to play Diana as a teenager (inadequate solution: no makeup), and when the movie cuts to her as a young adult all dolled up, it’s a jolt to see what a stunner she is.

Much later, after Diana has been reduced to working a bump-and-grind joint (though not in any sexually provocative way), she’s seen in a blond fright wig and dreadfully over-elaborate eye makeup that eerily makes her look like a younger version of the Bette Davis we’d later see in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane.

Diana’s movies (most of which were Universal ‘B’-pictures) are tough to find even as bootlegs, so we don’t know if the movie’s assertion that she was an iffy actress holds any water. Given that the script has her laboring at something called “Imperial Pictures,” which never existed, you have to wonder.

This rendering further asserts that 1941’s All Through the Night (a real movie produced at Warner Bros.) was a stinker when in actuality — now and, I would have to guess, then — it’s about as much fun as an anti-Nazi comedy-drama with Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, their Casablanca co-star Conrad Veidt, Judith Anderson, William Demarest, Phil Silvers and Jackie Gleason and more should be.

These kinds of biopics almost always fudge the marital angle because lawsuits are only one attorney away. Thus, it’s kind of a surprise that the martially abusive and chronically unemployed tennis amateur played by Ray Danton is called “John Howard” — which really was the name of Barrymore’s second husband. In this version, at least, he’s the one real standout heel.

Until it hit me, I kept trying to place the actor who plays John’s keeper disguised as a housekeeper, the one who at least tries to spike the actor’s drinks with water. He’s John Dennis (who turns out, did a ton of TV) — memorable for his screen debut in From Here to Eternity for his performance as Sgt. Ike Galovitch, the agitating creep who finally induces Montgomery Clift to fight him.

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