Thursday, September 16, 2021

Barbara Payton: A Life in Pictures charts the rise and fall of a Hollywood star


The late actress Barbara Payton was beautiful, and she possessed screen presence. Her most notable film is "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye," with James Cagney. 

Both Universal and particularly Warner Bros., prepped her with the anticipation for stardom. Ultimately, her story was tragic. She died mostly forgotten in the late 1960s, depressed; her body broken by alcoholism, and other abusive behaviors.

Her biographer, John O'Dowd, has published an amazing work. "Barbara Payton: A Life in Pictures," BearManor Media, 2018, Albany, Ga. (Amazon link is here). Through an introduction and afterword, with 34 chapters in between, it provides arcs of both her 39 years of life and her tenure as an entertainer. (Below, is a picture of Payton radiating girl-next-door beauty).

The book charts her biography, a girl from flyover country who attracted attention from the entertainment industry once she arrived in Hollywood with her husband. Universal soon beckoned and she starred in some now-forgotten shorts with a singing cowboy. She also made the publicity rounds.

The family photos from the '30s and '40s are extremely interesting and it's a credit to O'Dowd that he tracked them down. The author admits in the introduction that his goal is to convey that his subject Payton -- who was trashed repeatedly during her life and beyond -- was a "kind and empathetic" person. He notes that her decline and eventual fall into a personal hell was likely the result of a lack of awareness of the gravity of her situations. 

Universal dropped her, largely due to rumors of an affair with superstar Bob Hope. Reading the book, one can't ignore the irony of a woman (Payton) being harshly sanctioned for an affair, but the more powerful man involved, Hope, skating through it unscathed. 

Her end at Universal started a trajectory of a few years where Payton hopscotched between bigger studios (Warner Bros and semi-big RKO) to work, sometimes loaned out, at lower-tier studios (Eagle-Lion, Jack Broder, Lippert, Allied Artists). (Below is a scene of Barbara with Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye" star Cagney).

Payton's co-stars in films included Cagney, Gregory Peck, Lloyd Bridges, Guy Madison, Raymond Burr, Lon Chaney Jr., Steve Cochran, and even Sonny Tufts! She starred in one film that has a small cult following, "Bride of the Gorilla," with Burr and Chaney Jr.

The photos in the book provide a glossy history of Hollywood in that era. The glamorous photos, the publicity campaigns, the stars gathering at the hot spots with photographers, the scandal sheets of that era, which Barbara was in a lot, unwillingly, and unfortunately, later more willingly. The courtroom shots, the pictures at Barbara's house when she was wealthy. Accounts of her relationships with actors Franchet Tone and Tom Neal are covered via photos, as well as the aftermath of Tone's savage beating by Neal.

With her career damaged in Hollywood, Payton went to England to star in a couple of Hammer films. The pictures are poignant, because they show a time and place where Payton was treated as a major star -- for the last time. I wondered while leafing through the London photos, the stills from films, publicity shots, Payton interacting with Londoners, if perhaps she should have stayed there to pursue more work. But she was in a bad relationship with the toxic, violent Neal, and he soon joined her across the Atlantic. They returned home.

By this time, the bad press, and cruel taunting from most Hollywood press icons, kept her away from the big studios. She was with the usually unemployed Neal in a couple of films. Also, the book highlights an unsuccessful stage tour with Neal of "The Postman Always Rings Twice."

(Below is a photo of Barbara, with actor Paul Langton, in the final film she made, "Murder is My Beat," directed by low-budget auteur Edgar Ulmer.)

Neal eventually left. That was no loss but by the latter '50s, Payton's personal and professional setbacks were heavy. She lost custody of her son, John Lee Payton. She lost her home. She entered the scandal sheets again due to a bad check charge. 

In the later '50s it might be charitable to call her life bohemian, but desperately trying to stay afloat is more apt. It's claimed she lived in the same poverty apartment as cult figure Vampira. She was married for a while to a much younger man and lived a rustic life with her spouse in Mexico.

There are candid photos in the book that, as O'Dowd notes, capture tension, weariness, disappointment, pain in Payton's face. You can see her shock in the late '50s, when she calls a news conference to announce a comeback, and is derided by press hounds who bothered to come.

It underscores what O'Dowd mentions about an over-optimism, a desire to believe good in others, that provided a lack of awareness to Barbara of how her own dysfunctional behavior damaged her. Also, recollections in the book (and there are many) hint of a deep pride, or even a desire to punish herself, that prevented her from accepting or taking advantage of the few offers of help she received late in life. She was exploited a lot, including in a dreadful, exploitative "autobiography" of her life in 1963. O'Dowd's book appropriately includes this event. Included is a haunting photo of a stoned, eyes wide and glazed Barbara, dressed scantily, looking about 50 years old. It is shocking, and heart-wrenching.

(Below is a photo that reminds how beautiful Payton was in her heyday. The photos other than the cover were provided by author O'Dowd).

O'Dowd's 560-page book takes the reader through the very rough 1960s' life she endured. She died in 1967, in her parents' home. Pictures cannot accurately describe the hell the subject endured. For more details, one can read O'Dowd's excellent biography of Payton, "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye," (Bearmanor Media). (Amazon link here) My Plan9Crunch review of it is here. Two Plan9Crunch interviews with O'Dowd regarding "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye" are here and here.

O'Dowd's strength as a writer and an art compiler is that he makes you care about the subject. He gets beyond the surface news reporting and uncovers the layers that makes a human being. He has spoken to so many family members, friends, lovers, acquaintances, colleagues, and media about Payton. It's a Herculean task and it provides readers the opportunity to care about the subject, to grieve for her failings and dysfunctional, dangerous life.

O'Dowd is currently working with a screenwriter to bring Payton's life story to the screen, in theaters, TV, streaming. My preference would be a Netflix-type streaming series but a two-hour movie would be a treat as well. Getting to a film takes a long time but I suspect Payton's compelling life eventually becomes one. 

-- Review by Doug Gibson