The Alcoholic Cult of Barbara Payton (Part Two)

*contains spoilers

Stephen Murray is no Liam Neeson

Then came a pair of films in England where public interest was piqued by the scandal. The films were released by what would become Hammer Studios and were the sci-fi themed Four Sided Triangle (1953), which obviously used the ménage a trois angle of Barbara’s real life and Bad Blonde (1953), where she really does play a bad girl. She was really lucky to pick up any work at all. Meant as second features at the bottom of double bills, the first of these, Four Sided Triangle was directed by Hammer legend Terence Fisher (1904-80 no info). As the narration begins: “We have our fair share of men and women who turn their own lives into nightmares”. We are then introduced to a little girl who seems to like boys fighting over her. Barbara’s character talks of suicide when we see her all grown up, her hair short and neatly coiffed. She gives an enthusiastic performance although the radiance of Bride of the Gorilla is not as strong. There is an hourglass figure which falls a little over her cupped dress, a sign of too many calories from alcohol.

Four Sided Triangle (1953) clip

In the film, one of the characters, played by Stephen Murray (1912-83 no info), who looks like Liam Neeson without the charisma, produces a machine that can duplicate anything. Whether its rare medicines, works of art, or weapons is up for moral interpretation. It’s enough to drive a sensitive scientist to drink, especially when his love for Barbara is unrequited. When Barbara marries his scientific partner and rival, there is no other choice but to make a duplicate copy of Barbara for himself. While it’s up to her whether to go through with the plan in a scene of angst, which is a bit weak – she agrees! Not that her husband knows. And at a flick of a switch it is done. It’s alive! It’s alive!! It’s alive!!!

Four Sided Triangle poster

And it’s all very strange. What if Barbara really did have two selves: one for Neal and one for Tone. Maybe her career would have thrived. However in Four Sided Triangle there are, of course, complications as the duplicate Barbara still fancies her original husband. This causes her suicidal tendencies to arise in duplicate and she swims out to sea. She survives but now there are two women in love with the scientist’s rival!

It aint gonna be a happy ending even if it means shock treatment!!

Four Sided Triangle is an underrated low budget masterpiece and I have liked it ever since the first time I saw it – and enjoy it on repeated viewings. It’s all very English of course, the narration’s a bit talky, but the laboratory scenes are very much a precursor to Fisher’s The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958).

The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) trailer

The second of the British films, Bad Blonde, kicks off at a carnival where two well-built boxers fight for a cash prize. The winner is soon involved with a promoter and his sluttish wife played by Barbara. She likes a good figure especially when it’s a dollar sign. She doesn’t want her fat and aging promoter husband and art imitates life as Barbara licks her lips at the sight of two men beating each other up and her mind boggles at how she can use this boxer in bed and beyond.

Bad Blonde poster

Barbara had lost some weight by the time she made this one and she is bad news as she gets her new boyfriend to commit murder. Perfect as a conniving bitch, she is also quite fetching in a swimsuit. While not half as good as Four Sided Triangle, both are in black and white, this is better than most of her US product.

At the end of the movie, a new boxer ascends the stairs for a fight and he bears a strong resemblance to Tom Neal – something that leaves the surviving characters in the movie feeling uneasy for the wrong reasons.

The first movie was shot in five weeks and director Fisher said she worked hard but there was an “aura of doom” about her.

Barbara’s time in London was spent clubbing and picking up playboys, something that led to Neal, who followed her to London, to find her naked on a bearskin rug with a man. So it was reported. He did beat her up though and she wore a cut over her eye in public.

Cave woman Barbara

After the flop of the British pics, which were bound for failure outside Britain, Barbara was teamed with another drunken loser Sonny Tufts (1911-70 pneumonia) in another of Jack Broder’s low-rent movies Run for the Hills (1953). The stars live in a cave and wear loincloths for some of the running time – again symbolic of her relationship with Neal. The film, which showed a more wholesome and domestic side to Barbara, naturally flopped. No-one was interested in her as a serious actress anymore and her acting skills showed that while she still had potential – she looked great – she wasn’t developing. She was simply pissing it all away.

It was mid-1953 and the boozy Neal couple offered their services cheaply to Lippert Pictures, known for making low budget westerns, to make The Great Jesse James Raid (1953). It was all to cash in on their notoriety in the tabloids. Filmed at Bronson Canyon, the film contains the cheapest ever paint on paper credits it would appear ever conceived! The film itself isn’t much better with Barbara’s first appearance well into the picture as a saloon singer who can’t sing. Neal’s scowling presence in the movie is just as minor. Payton has the best line in the movie though when she says the self referential: “I never was one to do things the easy way. It isn’t my nature”.

Barbara and Neal in The Great Jesse James Raid

At 26, reclined on a camp bed she is still beautiful, but it is obvious there have been too many late nights. You could almost forgive the movie for this scene alone but the results are standard at best and both Neals die by the end. Another poor color process didn’t help but it did make a profit and producer Bob Lippert (1909-76 no info) described the couple again as “hard working”.

The Neals followed this with a tour on stage of The Postman Always Rings Twice but it petered out with drunken performances and reports the pair were using each other as punching bags. Two years together and it fizzled. They were known as the White Trash of Hollywood and she told reporters: “Yes, it’s over. But he sure was great while it lasted!”

Eartha Kitt as Catwoman

Despite a career in tatters, Barbara moved herself and her son into a big house on Beverly Drive where the boy was left alone most of the time with the housekeeper. She held big dinner parties, which were known to be “bi-racial”, and guests would include Eartha Kitt (1927-2008 colon cancer). Her sexual addiction was out of control and became more uninhibited as she drank. She began to pick up complete strangers for sex. It is thought her hyper-sexuality was caused by bipolar disorder.

The parties at her house became bawdier and her seven-year-old son witnessed group sex among other things. One visitor said he didn’t even know his age, as he seemed lost in the party melee. It was fortunate he wasn’t molested and as an adult recounts his time with his mother as a good one but he said he learned a lot about sex among adults.

Murder is My Beat (1955) clip

It was around this time that Barbara made her last film Murder is my Beat (1955) directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. While I sometimes think that Ulmer is overrated this film is quite good. I am a great admirer of Detour, however, which of course stars Tom Neal. The Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957) is fun too.

Murder is my Beat has Barbara play a possible murderess and it is one of her best performances even if she is not the star. She is a vulnerable woman who has given up all hope and is haunted by her past. It’s something not far from the truth. People say she has a hard look about her but she is still quite attractive although now tarnished. Ulmer gave her a happy ending with a happy marriage possibly on the horizon. Murder is my Beat played theatres to little fanfare in early 1955.

The movies were over for Payton and the next stage of her life would be one of eventual and total degradation. Known for her generosity to friends, it would not be returned when things started to turn bad.

Barbara looking drugged/drunk

The beginning of the end came in 1955 when she was arrested for passing a bad check paying for alcohol. She was evicted from her house, losing all her possessions and custody of her son. A million dollar settlement from Tone blown, she was suddenly living in a roach infested dump and increasingly on the fringes of Hollywood – and yet still dreaming of making it to the top again, the studios welcoming her back.

All over a bad check at a store where she had spent thousands.

She wept as her son was taken away from her at nine years old and they would never see each other again. His father was a Korean war hero now since he spent time in a prison camp. He would take his son to overseas bases to live.

Barbara in court

Picking up a new husband who tried to straighten her out by taking her to Mexico, she then hooked up with former actress and drug addict Lila Leeds (1928-99 heart attack) in Chicago. In a final self-destructive move, she and Lila opened a call girl racket. Sleeping around would begin to pay for Barbara and why not – she liked it and money was short.

Following six months of that activity, the Hollywood Dream beckoned again for her and she called a press conference where she said she wanted to kick start her career again. While the conference showed she was still quite beautiful at 31, it degenerated into a rehash of her sordid past. Hollywood was unforgiving and she returned to Mexico with her husband where her alcoholism worsened.

Her itinerant lifestyle continued and she was seen working in a dry cleaner shop in Hollywood, her looks beginning to fade and she put on weight as time ticked on into the 1960s. She would often return to live with her alcoholic parents in San Diego where drunken fights would often break out amongst them.

Barbara in custody

By this time she was working as a $100 a night hooker but her puffy appearance and drunken demeanour meant business wasn’t great. Lonely and morose, Barbara had given up on her looks and became a full time prostitute. One day she took a homeless dog back to her no pets apartment. She was evicted for refusing to give the dog up and was made homeless. Unwashed and dishevelled, she could be seen wandering Sunset Boulevard.

Arrested by an undercover policeman for prostitution over a forty-dollar trick, she was relying on the kindness of strangers for food and shelter. There were no Hollywood friends to help her out and her family neglected her as well. The mentally ill actress was then beaten and raped by a teenage gang and the following day was arrested for public drunkenness.

She made headlines again for all the wrong reasons!

Franchot Tone who was living in luxury in New York said he had deepest sympathy for her. Their parting saw two very different paths and all because of Tom Neal. According to those in the Hollywood community Barbara was a bad joke who wouldn’t go away.

She wouldn’t say no to any man now and was asking five dollars a trick, living with her pimp in a rat infested building.

Overweight and lost

The $10,000 a week salary was a long time ago as she had five-minute encounters with strangers in cars pulled over on Sunset Boulevard.

Missing her front teeth, one Hollywood acquaintance picked her up one rainy night and found her incoherent and disoriented. He said she was covered in bruises and dirt and had a demeanour of utter despair. She was nothing more than an empty shell and a zombie.

Barbara’s book

In 1963, a book about her life, told to a ghost writer appeared entitled I’m Not Ashamed. In it she babbled nonsensically and drunkenly about lesbian experiences and sleeping with black men. Something oh so shocking at the time. There was no interest and the book sold in cheap bins at the back of bookshops. There was a picture inside of her looking swollen and pasty striking a pose as if she were a girlish starlet – it was nothing but a cruel caricature.

She was arrested shortly after and charged for being under the influence of heroin. Barbara was finally put into detox, or what existed as such back then. Her family tried to have her committed – because she was mentally ill – but the powers that be refused.

Barbara suffered mental illness and addiction problems, something dealt with differently today – back then it was seen as a sign of personal weakness.

She had crossed the line of sleeping with men for work into sleeping with men as her job.

Toothless Barbara

By 1965, she was living on Skid Row near where Ed Wood ended up dying. There she met fellow down and out actor John Rayborn (1926-2003 heart attack) and among the semen smeared mattress, the empty bottles and cigarette butts, he said he found an intelligent lover, with a good vocabulary, who held onto the words from the Book of Joshua: Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified: do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.

It was a short-lived affair and they were evicted again. She lived cleaning toilets for board in another place and spent her last years drinking at the Coach and Horses Bar. Actor William Holden used to slum it there and gave Barbara a wide berth.

Neal before and after prison

Meanwhile, also in 1965, Tom Neal shot his wife, 20 years his junior, in the back of the head after a quarrel. The prosecutor wanted the death penalty but he was sentenced to fifteen years. During the trial Barbara turned up with her missing teeth looking like a backwoods character in dark glasses. After serving six years, a dissipated Neal died of heart failure in 1972. Franchot Tone meanwhile would die of lung cancer in 1968.

Little is known about Barbara’s last couple of years spent between Hollywood and her parent’s home in San Diego. In February 1967, she was found black and blue and left for dead near a dumpster in a parking lot in Hollywood. Taken to hospital, it was determined she was suffering liver failure, she also had malnutrition and exposure from living on the streets. She really was, sadly, a human piece of garbage.

Starlet ‘caricature’ – Barbara near end

Released from hospital a few weeks later, she went home for the last time where her father drank whiskey straight from the bottle, while her mother used a coffee cup. Living with these hopeless alcoholics, she apparently ranted bitterly, and looked as old as her mother. The long slow suicide was coming to an end.

After wrecking her father’s car on a drunken trip to the wine shop, Barbara stopped drinking for a week. Then on 8 May 1967 she collapsed in the early afternoon beside the toilet and died in her mother’s arms.

Her death certificate read: Last Occupation: Actress. Last Place of Employment: Warner Bros. Studios. No-one from Hollywood turned up to her funeral.

The beauty, who had been loved by a beast, both in real life and in Bride of the Gorilla, died a broken woman, crushed by Hollywood and its Dream. She was 39.

Barbara seemed to have it all in the beginning. It showed in a movie entitled Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. When she made that movie she had already sowed the seeds of her own downfall. The title is cruel irony.

Lost beauty

Was Barbara just a bad egg with a bad attitude who spiralled out of control?  She is certainly more than a cautionary tale for girls, even for those in this era of the #MeToo movement. Actresses still willingly use the casting couch even if it is not talked about. It may all be a question of discipline/weakness as it is perceived even in this “enlightened” era. There is no doubt Barbara suffered a mental illness, whether it was caused by sexual abuse as a child remains unknown but it was a handicap hampered by multiple addictions – and there was no help available. Lindsay Lohan has nothing on Barbara Payton! Lindsay is a girl scout in comparison.

So to sum up, this enigmatic and short-lived platinum blonde goddess with the crystal blue eyes lived like a rock star – albeit one out of time and place – and for a short time those beautiful eyes shone on the silver screen. Vale Barbara!!

8 Comments

  1. notthatwillsmith
    Permalink

    I’d have loved to bang her for a fiver when she was hot!

    Reply
  2. JR
    Permalink

    Contrast to that of the life she would have had if she had stayed with her husband Payton and raising their son, what a different life she would have had. It’s hard not to picture her son graduating high school with no mother there to congratulate him and meanwhile in her world, some random person tosses $20 to her semi-conscious shell. I can’t think of a more heart-wrenching outcome.

    Reply
  3. Lynn
    Permalink

    Good article. However, Barbara was friends with Lila Leeds (1928-1999), not Lila Lee.

    Reply
  4. Alex M.
    Permalink

    Very well written. Informative with real zeal and feeling. Thank you.

    Reply

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