Hollywood Babylon: TOO MUCH, TOO SOON (Warner Brothers 1958)

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 !

Errol Flynn (1909-1959) as John Barrymore

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 Diana Barrymore (1921-1960) with Errol Flynn

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.

A Fast Look at THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS (AIP 1955)

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I’ve never seen any of those FAST AND FURIOUS movies with Paul Weller, Vin Diesel, and The Rock (yeah I know, Dwayne Johnson, but he’ll always be The Rock to me). Nope, not even one. I just never had much interest in them. I’d heard of the 1955 THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, an early Roger Corman production, but never watched it either, until now. Seems I wasn’t missing anything.

THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS is Corman’s second film as producer, and first release for American International Pictures, under the moniker American Releasing Corporation. It’s an inauspicious debut for the company, to put it mildly. The story concerns escaped con Frank Webster, who kidnaps sports car racer Connie Adair and her white Jaguar (which is a nice car, by the way). They bicker with some tough-talking dialogue, as Frank plans on crossing the border to Mexico by driving the Jag in a road race to Mexico. The movie only comes to life during the racing scenes at the end. Otherwise, it’s pretty dull going.

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Corman wrote the story because of his love for racing. Allegedly, he does the driving of the car racing neck and neck with Webster. Corman got John Ireland to star as Webster by promising him the chance to codirect. Ireland handled the dramatic scenes, while editor Edwards Sampson did the racing action. It’s Ireland’s second stint as a director. Not surprisingly, he didn’t get a third. Roger Corman figured he could do much better, and took the director’s chair for his next film FIVE GUNS WEST, beginning a long and prosperous career.

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Dorothy Malone  adds sex appeal as Connie, if nothing else. Not her fault, as the script isn’t all that good. Iris Adrien, the poor man’s Joan Blondell, as a bit as a brassy diner waitress. Corman regulars Bruno Ve Soto and Joanthan Haze appear, as does Roger in a Hitchcockian cameo as a state trooper. Silent comedy star Snub Pollard has a role as a caretaker. Hmmm, what else… oh, did I mention the racing scenes are cool?

As you can probably tell, I wasn’t very impressed with THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS. It’s historically important as AIP’s first film, and Roger’s second, but it’s lackluster thanks mainly to Ireland’s uninspired direction. Maybe I should give those newer FAST AND FURIOUS flicks a chance. What do you think, Rock?

Rockin’ in the Film World #3: BEACH PARTY (AIP 1963)

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Finally! The weather here in New England has begun to break, and we’re heading into summer. I even managed to get some beach time in today. TCM beat me to the punch when they aired BEACH PARTY as part of their month-long salute to American International Pictures, a blast from the past filled with sand, surf, teenage sex, and plenty of good ol’ rock’n’roll! BEACH PARTY spawned a series of films and a whole slew of imitators , but AIP did ’em first and best.

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Teen idol Frankie Avalon and ex-Mouseketeer Annette Funicello starred in most of the AIP’s, using the same plot over and over. Frankie wants sex, but Annette wants to wait for marriage. They fight, and try to make each other jealous by dating someone new, but wind up together by film’s end. Simple, and rehashed using gimmicks like bodybuilding, drag racing, sky diving, and skiing to make things seem fresh. Even the old “haunted house” chestnut got used in the series’ last entry, GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI (with Tommy Kirk and Deborah Walley replacing Frankie & Annette).

Here, the beach antics involve Frankie & Annette on school vacation, where horny Frank plans to spend quality time alone with her. But not so fast: Annette’s invited the whole gang to join them at their rented beach house. Frankie is pissed, and gets with Hungarian hottie Ava (Eva Six, Miss Golden Globes of 1963), a waitress at the gang’s hang-out, Cappy’s (played by Morey Amsterdam). Cappy’s an overage beatnik who harbors Big Daddy, a mysterious beachfront guru from whom everyone’s waiting to hear “the word”.

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Bearded anthropologist Dr. R.O. Sutwell (Robert Cummings) is on the beach doing research, studying the mating habits of teens. He compares them to Aborigine tribal customs, with their slang talk and wild watusi-ing.  Sutwell’s accompanied by assistant Marianne (Dorothy Malone, Oscar winner for WRITTEN ON THE WIND), who pines for the uptight, clueless professor. Annette uses the older man (who the kids mockingly call “pig-bristles”) to get back at Frankie’s philandering with Ava.

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Enter Eric Von Zipper and his Rats. Arguably the most popular character in the entire series, he’s played by Harvey Lembeck, memorable in Billy Wilder’s STALAG 17 and as costar of Phil Silver’s SGT. BILKO show. Von Zipper’s clearly patterned after Marlon Brando in THE WILD ONE, but this bumbling biker’s dumb as a bag of rocks. With his catchphrase “You stupids!” and exaggerated Brooklyn accent, Lembeck steals the film with his comic zaniness. The best part is when he confronts Sutwell, who gives him the ancient “Himalayan finger”, causing its victims to revert to a state of suspended animation.

Also appearing in the cast and subsequent “beach party” flicks is pushing-30 John Ashley, who was in AIP’s 50’s epics HOT ROD GIRL and MOTORCYCLE GANG, and went on to star Eddie Romero’s Filipino “Blood” trilogy, and later produced TV hit THE A-TEAM. Candy Johnson was the girl in the fringe whose wild shimmying literally knocked the boys off their feet. Jody McCrea, son of Western star Joel, makes his debut appearance as Deadhead, the loveable goofball of the gang (later changed to Bonehead for some strange reason). Andy Romano and Alberta Nelson are the most recognizable Rats, while Meredith McRae, Valora Noland, and Gary Usher represent the surfers. And cult star Yvette Vickers (ATTACK OF THE 50-FOOT WOMAN, THE GIANT LEECHES) has an uncredited bit as one of Cappy’s yoga girls.

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Plenty of music is provided by surf guitar legend Dick Dale and his Del Tones, who perform “Swing’ and Surfin'” and “Secret Surfin’ Spot”. Frankie rocks out to the twist number “Don’t Stop Now”, while Annette sweetly sings “Treat Him Nicely”, and the duo duets on the theme song “Beach Party Tonight”. All these hijinks are ably handled by veteran director William Asher, who directed the bulk of TV’s I LOVE LUCY episodes, and produced and directed the series BEWITCHED for his wife Elizabeth Montgomery. Asher’s flair for comedy is highlighted by  wild brawl that turns into a pie fight at the conclusion.

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Oh, and Big Daddy is finally revealed to be none other than our old friend, Vincent Price, who gives us “the word”: “The Pit… bring me my pendulum, kiddies, I feel like swingin'”. Yep, it’s a plug for Vinnie’s upcoming Edgar Allan Poe flick THE HAUNTED PALACE. AIP may not have been known for highbrow product, but they sure knew how to cross-promote!

Take it away, Candy!!!: