Wednesday, March 25, 2009

cinema obscura: Art Napoleon's "Too Much, Too Soon" (1958)

Lost: The performances of Errol Flynn and Dorothy Malone as John and Diana Barrymore in Art Napoleon's biopic, "Too Much, Too Soon" (1958)
There are actresses about whom a little bit too much has been said and written. Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis fall into this camp. Enough already. Isn't it fascinating how both the public and the media have traditionally served as enablers to shameless narcissists?

Then there are those women, every bit as good and accomplished, who go through their lives with precious little acknowledgement.

An excellent case in point is the fabulous Dorothy Malone, a staple of the 1950s who glided effortlessly through such titles as Gordon Douglas' "Young at Heart" (1954), Raoul Walsh's "Battle Cry" (1955), Frank Tashlin's "Artists and Models" (1955), Charles Marquis Warren's "Tension at Table Rock" (1956), Douglas Sirk's "Written on the Wind" (1956) and "The Tarnished Angels" (1958), Joseph Pevney's "Man of a Thousand Faces' (1957), Richard Thorpe's "Tip on a Dead Jockey" (1957) and Robert Aldrich's "The Last Sunset" (1961).

"Tension at Table Rock." "Tip on a Dead Jockey." What great titles.

And, of course, for the sheer fun of it, Malone also did William Asher's highly disposable "Beach Party" (1963), paired with an also-slumming Robert Cumming. But her best role was in Art Napoleon's missing "Too Much, Too Soon" (1958), a steamy biopic in which Malone played the rebellious Daine Barrymore to Errol Flynn's John. Naturally sensual, Malone specialized in characters who had an "itch" - an itch for men, an itch for sex, an itch for highs and an itch for risks and adventure. "Too Much, Too Soon" presented Malone with material that she knew best - and which only she could pull off. You can't imagine anyone else in the role. Not Elizabeth Taylor. Not Joanne Woodward. Not Piper Laurie.

This is the only film that truly showcased Malone - in which she was The Star - and she rewards her director and the viewer to an intricate, multi-faceted performance that is at once exhilarating, scary and sad.

And she is ably abetted by Flynn, who is very moving as Diana's father, and by Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Ray Danton and Martin Milner as the assorted men who flit in and out of Diana's life - and bed.

The maker of "Too Much, Too Soon," one Art Napoleon, is a curiosity. He made only three films in his lifetime, the other two being "Man on the Prowl" (1957), his debut feature starring Mala Powers and James Best, and "The Activist" (1969) which, to the best of my knowledge, was never released. All three films were written by Napoleon's wife, Jo, who also worked with him on several TV shows ("Whirlybirds," among them).

Art Napoleon died in 2003; Joe Napoleon passed in 1999.

Dorothy Malone is still with us.


Brian said...

Malone was majestic. She should have been Bacall's heir to the title of hot femme fatale. She made it seem effortless, almost natural. Thanks for the tribute.

Daryl Chin said...

As mentioned, though there are always examples of someone of limited talent who becomes a star and someone of equal (or greater) talent who doesn't, there are a lot of factors. In the 1950s, when the studio system was on the wane, one of the important factors was the ability to find sympathetic collaborators, especially directors. Audrey Hepburn always said she was lucky to have worked with William Wyler (three times), Billy Wilder (twice), and Stanley Donen (three times), as well as King Vidor, Fred Zinnemann, John Huston and Blake Edwards (as she said, "they had the talent to make a marketable commodity out of this skinny broad"). It's a little counterproductive to go on about this (Katharine Hepburn wasn't just an actress, she was a raging egomaniac who was seemingly indefatiguable, but she also had a bugaboo, and worked very hard to cut down her competition, and two examples would be Margaret Sullavan and Ginger Rogers, both of whose reputations were tainted and - in Sullavan's case - destroyed by Hepburn; Robert Osborne, who knew and interviewed Hepburn, used to be condescending and dismissive of Sullavan in his intros on TCM, until about two years ago.) Dorothy Malone had been in Hollywood since the 1940s; aside from her knockout cameo in Hawks' THE BIG SLEEP, she was often cast as the good girl (as in Walsh's COLORADO TERRITORY), where she was usually competent but often not-quite-memorable. But it took Douglas Sirk to unleash her sexuality in WRITTEN ON THE WIND, and it changed her from a standard-issue ingenue to a star. But she was already in her mid-30s, and Hollywood didn't have much for her (within a decade, she would be on TV in the series PEYTON PLACE).

In terms of TOO MUCH, TOO SOON, it has been decades since i've seen it, but i had actually read the book (as well as Gene Markey's biography on John Barrymore, GOOD NIGHT SWEET PRINCE) and the movie seemed a mish-mash. Errol Flynn was nothing like John Barrymore, but he brought his own dissolute legend with him, and Dorothy Malone was good; in fact, i remember wishing she had been in Minnelli's THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, instead of Lana Turner, so that a real actress could have tackled the part of Georgia (who was so obviously based on Diana Barrymore).

But my point is that it does take SOMEBODY to know how to present talent: without Sirk, Malone might have been stuck in a rut. (Just before WRITTEN ON THE WIND, Malone was in PUSHOVER, where she's the good girl - a nurse, no less - while Kim Novak is the femme fatale and Malone is once again good but not quite exciting.)

joe baltake said...

Bravo! And thanks for all the skinny on Hepburn, Daryl.

Karen said...

There's a reason why Hepburn titled her autobiograhy, "Me." No surprise there. Methinks the woman as im-poss-ible.

jbryant said...

I think that should be "Tip ON a Dead Jockey," Joe.

Would love to see Too Much again. Malone is so sexy in The Big Sleep, I sometimes think she should've stayed brunette. Then I see The Tarnished Angels and think, "nah, it's all good."

joe baltake said...

Yipes! You're right, Jay. Consider it fixed.

Michael Powers said...

Wow. I like this site enormously and never encountered it before today. The way I did it ties in with what I'm about to note, which is something I've never encountered before. I was reading Kliph Nesteroff's recent column about Errol Flynn's voyeurism and while commenting, I noted that Flynn was especially interesting in "Too Much, Too Soon," an example of how Flynn's acting got better as he got older. I grew curious about what the real Diana Barrymore looked like, ran her on Google Images, and was astonished to see that she looked exactly like her niece Drew Barrymore. I don't mean resembled her, I mean looked precisely like her. Have a look but make sure you're sitting down when you do.