Saturday, August 5, 2023

Too Much, Too Soon: A Review



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Errol Flynn.

Long before Mommie Dearest revealed the dark side of movie star parents, there was Too Much, Too Soon. Unlike Christina Crawford's story however, this is about the crackup of the daughter who was neglected by her parent versus helicoptered by them. Too Much, Too Soon tries for gripping drama but ends up dull farce. 

Diana Barrymore has longed for the love, affection and attention of her legendary father John Barrymore (Errol Flynn). Despite her mother's misgivings, Diana finally manages to spend time with Jack. He proves himself a caring and attentive father, until he isn't.

This pattern repeats itself often between John and Diana (Dorothy Malone): she wanting to be part of his life, he still dominated by drink and irresponsible behavior to be the loving father he does try to be. Diana decides to become an actress, and she is delighted when her Broadway debut is a smashing success.

Mother Michael Strange (Neva Patterson) knows better. The audience is not applauding Diana. They are applauding Barrymore, the newest member of the acting dynasty to enter the profession. Diana, despite her promise, stays with John when she goes to California to make her feature film debut. Both father and daughter appear to fall apart. Diana's debut is a fiasco, and John still cannot get past himself and the booze.

Eventually, Diana follows another Barrymore tradition: she becomes an alcoholic. With her father dead, Diana slips into disinterest in anything. That includes not just her failed acting career but her first marriage to fellow actor Vincent Bryant (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.). Her second husband, tennis player John Howard (Ray Danton) is even worse. Diana manages to wreck not just her own life but that of her third husband, struggling alcoholic and actor Robert Wilcox (Edward Kemmer). Has Diana finally hit rock bottom, and will an old flame bring her back?

In truth, while Too Much, Too Soon gives viewers a bit of hope, the reality was far more tragic than this tawdry adaptation of Diana Barrymore's autobiography showed. Errol Flynn died in 1959, a year after Too Much, Too Soon premiered. Diana died the next year at age 38. I think that while Too Much, Too Soon could have been good, it ultimately was not due to Napoleon.

No, I am not blaming the French general Bonaparte or even his nephew Napoleon III, last King of France. I am blaming director/cowriter Art Napoleon (co-adapting Barrymore's book with Jo Napoleon). In terms of directing, Napoleon gave Dorothy Malone some awful guidance. Whether trying to play naive or pathetic, this Diana looked less self-destructive and more parody. What was meant to be a highly dramatic moment when she is smashing a window display only brought out giggles.

To be fair to both Napoleon and Malone, there were some good moments. When Diana, clearly sloshed out of her mind, is trying to entertain a strip club clientele with bad impersonations, one does feel great sadness. Napoleon also gives some of the actors some good lines. When Diana arrives in New York, a journalist asks her about a gossip columnists snide remarks about John Barrymore. 

Out of nowhere John appears. "Obviously the cadaverous Miss Steele is jealous of the fact that I'm vertical far more often than she is horizontal", a surprisingly daring quip for the times. Here is where Too Much, Too Soon excels: whenever Errol Flynn as John Barrymore is on screen. 

Flynn was forever dismissed due to his success as a swashbuckler. As a result, he was not seen as an actor but a star. Too Much, Too Soon shows that Flynn could be exceptional in a straight dramatic part. Coming close to looking and sounding like John Barrymore, Flynn is in turns sad and endearing as our troubled Jack. He is able to be witty and charming, enough to where he is forgiven many faults. He also showcases a surprising manner with Shakespeare.

Early on, Flynn as Barrymore recites the St. Crispian's Day speech from Henry V with vigor and passion so enrapturing that one gets almost caught up in that versus Diana's story. It is to where when while reciting this speech one can marvel at how well Flynn performs. Ultimately though, John Barrymore falls off the yacht and swims off with his friends, leaving his daughter alone. That captures what John Barrymore was like: brilliant actor, lousy man.

Flynn holds your attention so well, so masterfully, that one almost thinks Too Much, Too Soon is his story rather than Diana's. Once he leaves, you are stuck with Diana, who as performed by Malone sometimes becomes a caricature. She did have a few good moments, usually alongside Flynn. However, once she has to strike out on her own, the audience loses interest.

Too Much, Too Soon does have some good insight about the fickle nature of fame. Mother Michael observes to Diana's boyfriend Link (Martin Milner) that the audience is applauding "Barrymore", not "Diana". "The name of Barrymore is a commodity in this business," she flatly albeit perhaps sadly remarks. Michael is not taken in with Diana's ideas about her acting abilities. She, unlike her daughter, realizes that Diana is pursuing acting to try and get close to her father. She also sees that Diana should not be in this profession that would bring her nothing but misery.

As a side note, that line about the name Barrymore made me think of John Barrymore's granddaughter Drew. I imagine that early in her career, the famous surname brought more attention to her than if she had not been related to the First Family of Theater. 

I think Malone did her best, but at times she seemed so hellbent on being rich in drama that it went into comedy. Once she does not have Flynn to work with, everyone else seems to be pushing too hard to be dramatic. 

If not for Errol Flynn, I think Too Much, Too Soon would have been tawdrier and unintentionally funnier. Nothing against Diana Barrymore, but even her biopic ends up getting hijacked by her father. 



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