She was a beautiful free spirit with crystal blue eyes. She achieved stardom in Hollywood before instantly nose-diving into a life of alcoholism, sex addiction and degradation hastened by mental illness. Barbara Payton is all the Hollywood Dream can be and how it can turn completely and utterly upside-down and out.
From a Hollywood mansion to living on the streets, I will encapsulate her story from the excellent and balanced biography by John O’Dowd and review her movies that are available. She was in a precious dozen, if that, and most of them not too good.
Born in 1927, Barbara was a healthy red-blooded girl from the mid-west of the United States who dropped out of high school at the end of her junior year. Coming of age in a party town full of soldiers, motels and nightclubs, and with parents who were both alcoholic, she soon married as a teenager.
Bored stiff with being a housewife, at 18 she was already living in Los Angeles and became a fashion model. Pregnancy didn’t stand in the way of this wide-eyed beauty and in September 1947 she had her first agent while her husband, a career armed forces officer, seethed. Barbara had dreams of being a movie star and began work as a showgirl at Slapsy Maxie Rosenbloom’s (1907-76 Paget’s disease) nightclub. It was there she got her first real taste of the nightlife and one day left her husband and moved to Hollywood.
It was around this time she started to mix in bad company, including a drug dealer with mob ties. However she was spotted by Universal studios and put on a contract of $100 a week. At 21, she was appearing in B-movie western shorts. Seen by few they are considered lost today. Her bad boy connection continued when she dated George Raft (1895-1980 emphysema) who lavished gifts upon her and gave her a taste for the finer things. Her partying and “networking” on the Sunset Strip were already legendary and Paramount head AC Lyles said she had the most beautiful eyes ‘both sexy and innocent’. While still married she was seen around town with Ralph Meeker (1920-88 heart attack) and John Ireland (1914-92 leukemia). She also met Howard Hughes (1905-76 renal failure) but found him ‘strange’. Then she got caught up in Errol Flynn’s round the clock partying lifestyle at his mansion in the Hollywood Hills where she first got her reputation for only wanting to get laid and have a good time.
Somehow she hooked up with Bob Hope (1903-2003 pneumonia), a known philanderer and followed him on a tour of the States, neglecting her duties for Universal. She was subsequently dropped from that contract on a morals charge. It was serious as she was carrying on in public with a married star. Hope and Barbara even had a love nest but Hope wouldn’t leave his wife Dolores (1909-2011 natural causes) and in the end paid out thousands for Barbara to shut-up about the affair. She was however cast in the low rent studio Eagle-Lion film Trapped opposite Lloyd Bridges (1913-98 natural causes). Director Richard Fleischer (1916-2006 in sleep) chose her solely on her physical appearance, he said. But there is a Hope connection, as the film was produced by former vaudevillian Bryan Foy (1896-1977 heart attack), one of The Seven Little Foys, the title of the movie ex-vaudevillian Hope made in 1955. In Trapped she plays the girlfriend of a small time crook who deals in counterfeit money. The film is not bad and is typical of the semi-documentary realism of the time but it is not very distinctive although there are plenty of twists. Barbara’s role as a passionate and worldly ill-fated cigarette girl reflects her eventual downfall even then. She is beautiful but that beauty would be captured shortly afterwards. The film was a moderate box office success in October 1949. It was around this time that one of Barbara’s bad boy lovers bashed her landlady over rent and this made the newspapers.
Having missed out on the Marilyn Monroe part in the Asphalt Jungle (1950), Barbara auditioned for James Cagney’s (1899-1986 heart attack) follow-up to his highly successful White Heat (1949) – entitled Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950). She was hired for an unheard of $5000 a week by Cagney Productions and Warner Brothers studios. There was talk she had seduced James’ brother William (1905-88 undisclosed) to get the part. The casting couch had its merits so it would seem and she was given everything from dancing lessons to horse-riding tuition. In Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye she plays a basically good girl who gets involved with sadists, something that turns her into a murderer.
From the moment Barbara bursts into hysterical tears, you know she’s a good actress, one who won’t win an Oscar, but with a bit of training and perseverance might one day get a nomination. She gets beaten in the film with a towel and is a bit over the top at times – probably intense is the best word for her. The scene where she throws a coffee pot, cream and sugar at Cagney is priceless. It’s Cagney’s movie however along with Luther Adler (1903-84 undisclosed) as a crooked lawyer. The violence is raw and, at rare times, the sexuality as well. Barbara: “I’ll put up with a lot from you, but not another woman”. Cagney: “I can barely handle you…” She definitely is beautiful and she showed promise.
While Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye was not a massive hit, Barbara got a pay-rise to $10,000 a week. She showed such promise. But dubbed the New Queen of the Clubs and mixing it with Frank Sinatra (1915-88 bladder cancer, heart attack) and Lana Turner (1921-95 throat cancer), Barbara was only grabbing a few hours sleep a night before heading to the studio. She wasn’t taking her career too seriously.
Next was a small role in the Gary Cooper (1901-61 metastasised prostate cancer) movie Dallas (1950). In it she looks like an unkempt slattern, a reflection of her appearance from long nights clubbing. She gets no close-ups in the color movie, which could have made use of her blue eyes. In fact she is wasted in the picture and people say that was in more ways than one as scenes appeared to have been shot around her because her pupils were dilated from amphetamines she used to keep her weight at an acceptable level. Her role in Dallas was seen as punishment for her by Warner studio head Jack L. Warner (1892-1978 complications of Alzheimers and stroke) and she was cast opposite Steve Cochran (1917-65 acute lung infection) which was telling as he was dropped from his Warners contract a couple of years later for bad behaviour including assault. Between set-ups both actors would disappear for quickies. With her reputation for not being a serious minded professional she had already kissed tomorrow goodbye.
She then met actor Franchot Tone (1905-68 lung cancer) and disaster would beckon for both of them. Tone was a 1930s success story with an Oscar nomination for Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and a marriage to Joan Crawford. Despite warnings from others, Tone was enchanted by Barbara’s wholesome good looks and the fact she was 20 years younger than he was. He met her family and they got engaged in October 1950. But shortly afterward, Barbara was called up in front of a grand jury in defence of an underworld figure who committed perjury. The secret was out – she was a bad girl – and it wasn’t helped by Tone’s child custody trial where Barbara was called a drug-using “tramp”.
Her last movie for Warners is the slightly underrated Only the Valiant (1951), a western which stars Gregory Peck. The black and white film has Barbara again surrounded by character actors such as Lon Chaney Jr (1906-73 throat and lung cancer), Ward Bond (1903-60 heart attack) and Steve Brodie (1919-92 cancer), a bunch of thirsty thespians if there ever was one. There was a report she had a fling with Peck but that is unlikely as he didn’t like her and he was not the “type”. The movie is a brooding and underrated western with plenty of atmosphere. Not surprisingly it is another William Cagney production. Barbara’s role is strictly small-time and her acting shows no progression from Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.
The claustrophobic plot set in a deserted desert outpost where soldiers must hold back a small horde of marauding Indians includes a scene where Peck gives his motley crew a dressing down. You can’t help but think that there’s a grain of truth in the character of each of the actors he addresses. Alcohol is essential to the plot and the film ends on an alcoholic note with a drunken Ward Bond singing: “Oh captain, oh captain are you thinking of me?!” as he stumbles through the fort with Barbara and Captain Peck framed in each others arms in the background. Perhaps a direct reference to the husband she left behind Captain John Payton? Seems painfully so. And through the omnipresent eyes of Jack Warner and William Cagney, this final scene sums up Barbara’s career with a symbolic drunken Barbara singing as she stumbles past the perfect picture of former domestic bliss and possible success in the arms of her co-star. The truth is this “happy ending” image is overshadowed by a drunken character. It sums up Barbara’s career as she is a star but has paid the price and this final image in Only the Valiant can be seen as the peak before the final precipice. It is both a touching and tragic finale when taken in context. Incidentally, she mourns for the death of a character named Bill in the movie, when really she loves Peck. Bill Cagney and divided loyalties between men? It’s another interesting au revoir for Barbara in the script.
After Only the Valiant, she was lent out to the apparently shady businessmen the King Brothers for the film Drums in the Deep South (1951). Patton is cast against type as a pure-hearted Southern belle and gives the semblance of a good performance. Filmed in the poor Supercinecolor process, it is the first and best film to capture the beauty of Barbara’s blue eyes. The film is also interesting for its cavern sets, something used to advantage by director and production designer William Cameron Menzies (1896-1957 cancer), whose talents were obviously more suited to those aspects of film production. Otherwise the film is largely forgettable. Again Barbara had a fling with leading man Guy Madison (1922-96 emphysema) whom a spying Tone caught in flagrante in the bedroom together. She was reportedly amused when this happened and there was more bad press in Confidential magazine.
Refusing to appear fifth billed in her next Warner production, she was put on suspension and headed over to producer Jack Broder (1904-79 no info) to do Bride of the Gorilla (1951).
This is the film which most captures her radiant beauty – even if it is a very trashy movie. Barbara gives her all in this movie where a voodoo curse is put upon her latest partner causing him to turn into a gorilla. Despite the fact that Warners were in the process of dumping her, Payton still believed in the Dream. The poverty row production also stars alcoholic actors Lon Chaney Jr and Tom Conway (1904-67 liver failure alcoholism) and the gay Raymond Burr (1917-93 metastasised kidney cancer). She was only 24 and already on her way out as a star and yet here she is at the peak of her looks and radiant charisma.
During the filming of Bride of the Gorilla in July 1951, she fell for B-movie actor Tom Neal (1914-72 heart failure), when she saw him in a pair of briefs at a Hollywood pool party. It would be a meeting that would put a final nail in Barbara’s career coffin.
Neal, like Tone, came from a wealthy family and at five foot eight inches used weightlifting to attract women. After a good start at MGM, he insulted Louis B Mayer and was dropped from his contract. He is probably best remembered today for the ultra low budget classic directed by Edgar G. Ulmer (1904-72 complications of stroke) entitled Detour (1945). Ulmer, incidentally, would direct Barbara in her last feature, which is also, like Detour, a film noir. With his last divorce in 1949, which cited “mental cruelty and insane jealousy”, Neal was a true man’s man, who hell-raised with Errol Flynn. Barbara immediately began partying with Neal as if Tone didn’t exist and soon they were engaged despite already being engaged to Tone. She and Neal were sexual dynamite together. He was well-endowed and she had a sex drive which meant anywhere and at any time. Already on the set of Bride of the Gorilla, it was reported she was doling out sexual favours to Conway and others. Barbara went back and forth between a reportedly, at times, impotent Tone, and sex machine Neal. One fateful evening after spending it with Tone, a smashed Neal turned up at Barbara’s house and there a screaming match began between the two men over Barbara. She stood between them and Tone said rather foolhardily to take it outside on the patio littered with Neal’s weights. It took one punch from Neal to floor Tone and several more which left the actor on the verge of death.
Barbara got a black eye when she tried to stop the altercation. It made headlines over the world. Influential Hollywood gossip columnists Hedda Hopper (1885-1966 pneumonia) and Louella Parsons (1881-1972 heart failure) were venal in their blame of Barbara, who kept vigil at the hospital over Tone, who had to have extensive plastic surgery, bringing him thermoses of martinis. If Tone died, Neal faced a murder charge.
Then Barbara announced, while Tone was still in hospital, that they would marry upon his recovery. But only a few days later she was seen out nightclubbing with Neal. He even stayed at her place while Tone recovered. It would seem the “two-timing” bombshell couldn’t overcome her sexual appetite.
Did she love both men? Or did she confuse love with sex? Was she just manipulative? There was no doubt that Barbara was self-destructive and brought down others with her. She certainly didn’t care who knew about her highly sexual lifestyle at a time when it wasn’t openly talked about. She was addicted sexually to Neal and couldn’t get enough of him.
As a result of the altercation, Barbara was fired from her role in the 20th Century Fox movie Lady in the Iron Mask (1952).
Tone didn’t have Neal charged and Tone and Barbara married a few weeks later in late September. There was a furore in the press and Barbara was booed at a public appearance. The couple had become a joke. Tone, drunk at a Hollywood restaurant, spat in the eye of a Hollywood gossip columnist and was arrested. He got a suspended sentence.
Meanwhile, Barbara’s seven-year Warners contract ended after 22 months. It was in December, a few months after the wedding, she would start taking up with Neal again.
There was no doubt Barbara was a progressive woman and she would use colourful language and liked to shock during interviews. She admitted she liked rough sex and getting beaten up by Neal over the years.
It was probably not surprising that she was cast in the poorly received film entitled Bride of the Gorilla, which she was now promoting. It was a long way from starring alongside Jimmy Cagney.
While promoting the film, Barbara seemed to thrive on the notoriety as she egged on brawling men one drunken night to fight over her in a hotel room. She got together with Tone again in March 1952 in New York. It ended in an argument and Barbara attempted suicide by taking sleeping pills. She woke up in hospital crying out for Neal. Tone was finally through with her and moved out. Divorce proceedings followed but Barbara was back with Neal and detectives used photographs of her performing oral sex on him and others to discredit her. The couple settled out of court for a reported million dollars.
Despite their alcohol dependency the new Neal couple kept themselves in shape and their house was reportedly clean. Her son all this time had spent most of it with Barbara’s friends in East L.A. who brought him up well. He would live with her for a spell.
In the meantime Payton loved sex with Neal as much as she liked vodka at ten in the morning.
Let’s take a break and move onto Barbara’s British career and the final spiral into prostitution and destitution in PART TWO.