Hollywood biopics are by and large more about their entertainment value than historical accuracy. TOO MUCH TOO SOON is no exception. It tells the story of actress Diana Barrymore, daughter of “The Great Profile” John, based on her 1957 best-selling tell-all, and though it pretty much sticks to the facts, many of them have been sanitized for audience consumption. Dorothy Malone , fresh off her Oscar-winning role in WRITTEN ON THE WIND, is very good indeed as Diana, whose true life was much more sordid than fiction, and we’ll get to all that later. What makes the film for me was the actor portraying the dissipated John Barrymore – none other than Errol Flynn !
Don’t expect to see the dashing star of CAPTAIN BLOOD and THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD here. Flynn (who a year later would release his own tell-all book, MY WICKED, WICKED WAYS) looks bloated, paunchy, and haggard… and it ain’t makeup, folks! Years of carousing and alcohol/drug abuse had taken their toll on the once-athletic star. John Barrymore was Flynn’s idol and the younger actor modeled both his acting and his lifestyle on his hero. The two became friends and drinking companions in a band of Hollywood reprobates known as ‘The Bundy Drive Gang’, along with W.C. Fields , artist John Decker , writer Gene Fowler, actors John Carradine and Alan Mowbray , and others. There’s a famous story about how, after Barrymore’s death from cirrhosis of the liver, director Raoul Walsh “borrowed” the actor’s corpse and propped it up on Flynn’s couch, scaring the beejezus out of him!
Flynn gives a warts-and-all portrayal here, a loving tribute that finds the star even getting to spout some Shakespeare like his mentor. His Barrymore, much like himself, is a washed-up, booze-soaked old ham who’s squandered his talents with his alcoholism and womanizing, yet still manages to exhibit an undeniable charm. Errol Flynn himself was at a low point in his career, no longer the flamboyant screen swashbuckler but still capable of delivering the goods when the material was right. The part of John Barrymore fit Flynn like a glove and he gives it his all. It’s a poignant performance that surely hit close to home for Flynn, yet he wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. The romantic hero of countless films died a year later at age fifty after completing the low-budget CUBAN REBEL GIRLS with his then-teenaged girlfriend Beverly Aadland.
As for the rest of TOO MUCH TOO SOON, Malone gives a scorching performance as Diana, who heads to Hollywood to live with the father she (like Flynn) idolized. Signing a contract with ‘Imperial Films’ (actually Universal), Diana meets and marries handsome young actor ‘Vince Bryant’ (Efrem Zimbalist Jr., in reality older actor Bramwell Fletcher, who acted with Jack in 1931’s SVENGALI). The elder Barrymore hasn’t been onscreen in five years (untrue; he worked right up until his death in 1942), and is offered the part of Sheridan Whiteside in the movie version of THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (true; Bette Davis wanted him badly, but Jack Warner didn’t). When The Great Profile succumbs to his disease, Diana descends into alcoholism and madness, proving the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Now married to ‘Vince’, Diana’s drinking and neediness escalates. She takes up with tennis bum Johnny Howard, a real rat bastard as played by Ray Danton (the real Howard was ten times worse, and later convicted of “white slavery”). Howard goes through Diana’s money like water, and her mother cuts her off. Diana tries to restart her career onstage, meeting sympathetic actor Robert Wilcox (Ed Kemmer; the real Wilcox once starred in the serial THE MYSTERIOUS DR. SATAN), who’s eight months sober. The play flops, and the two are back on the bottle, living in a sleazy hotel. Diana is reduced to doing a vaudeville act doing bad impressions at a seedy strip joint (true). Now destitute, she breaks down when seeing her reflection in a window (a little dramatic license here), smashing the glass, and is arrested and put in a state mental hospital. She’s visited there by author Gerold Frank, who offers to write her life story when she’s released, giving her the chance to begin anew.
The real life Diana never did stop drinking or taking barbiturates (a deadly combination, trust me) before her own death in 1960 at age 38. Diana Barrymore was used for her name value on marquees, and is remembered today for her tragic life rather than any films she made. Hollywood always devours its own, and TOO MUCH TOO SOON exploits Diana once again, bringing to the screen her sordid (though sanitized) story for profit. It’s redeemed only by the performances of Malone and, especially, Errol Flynn.