Thursday, January 28, 2010

Detour Ahead

Looking like a blurry composite of Clark Gable and George Brent, the former society scion, Harvard student and amateur boxing champ Tom Neal was never destined for superstardom. Despite a wealthy upbringing, Neal somehow always looked like a mug - an often charismatic and sexy mug, but a mug, nontheless. A brief contract with MGM yielded no discernible results, although Neal managed to land a supporting role in one of the popular Thin Man entries (Another Thin Man, 1939). Instead, he was destined to toil in B-films and Poverty Row studio serials like Jungle Girl and Bowery at Midnight, although the ultra-low-budget Detour (1945) for the infamous PRC Studios has since become a critically-acclaimed cult favorite.


Tautly and stylishly directed on a six-day schedule, with no production frills whatsoever, Detour is widely lauded by latter-day film historians as classic noir. This belated appreciation, however, did little for Neal's career, which continued in the same steady but unremarkable vein: over 25 more films by the end of the decade. And then he met Barbara Payton.


Payton was young, gorgeous, and considered a rising star on the horizon, having just successfully co-starred with James Cagney in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950) and Gregory Peck in Only the Valiant (1951). Payton was also wildly self-destructive, sexually insatiable, and impossible to control; her promising career was quickly derailing thanks to snickering stories (some false, some true) about her outlandish sexual exploits with nearly every male in Hollywood. Improbably, the cultured and genteel Franchot Tone (formerly Mr. Joan Crawford #2) fell fast and hard for the blonde hellcat, and the two announced their impending nuptials to wide disapproval in 1951.


The Tone/Payton alliance was doomed from the beginning, fraught with Payton's dalliances and Tone's jealousy; and when Payton met Neal at a Hollywood pool party, the die was cast: the combustive energy the two generated proved irresistible. Physically and emotionally, they were a perverse example of being made for each other: both lustily attractive in an almost vulgar way, her neediness and sexual appetite feeding off of his domineering and violent streak. "He looked so wonderful in his trunks," Payton was quoted as saying, "I knew he was the only man in my life."


Payton broke her engagement with Tone, and swiftly proposed marriage to Neal. The scandal sheets and gossip columns were littered with items detailing Payton's back-and-forth shenanigans with the two men, and she seemed to delight in the jealous rages and power plays she was able to create. It all came to a bloody finish when the former boxer beat the elegant actor senseless in front of the femme fatale's home; Tone was beaten so badly by Neal, he went into a coma and, though he would ultimately recover, he required extensive plastic surgery.

There was little or no sympathy for Neal in Hollywood after the incident; and the alrady-reviled Payton had to quickly backtrack and resume her engagement to Tone in an attempt to reverse public opinion. Amazingly, Tone agreed to marry her, but the union lasted only two months. Predictably, Payton and Neal resumed their romance and attempted to pick up their careers; they appeared in one low-budget film together, and then found that the fallout from the Tone scandal had essentially blacklisted them in Hollywood. Taking their lurid act on the road, an ill-advised national tour of The Postman Always Rings Twice folded early, as the two stars fought, drank, appeared stinko on stage, or not at all. The Neal/Payton romance was officially over.


Payton, of course, drifted to one of the saddest and most sordid ends any Hollywood tragedy could come to: the $10,000 a week starlet reduced to turning $5 tricks on Skid Row. Neal became a landscaper and gardener, but still couldn't escape violence or scandal: in 1965, he shot and killed his third wife with a bullet to the back of her head. The jury couldn't agree on a murder conviction; instead, he was sentenced to ten years in prison for involuntary manslaughter. Neal was released after six years, and died of heart failure less than a year later.

January 28, 1914 - August 14, 1972


  1. ...noir bleak...i love it!

  2. Poor stiff, he never saw it coming but life took him out with a left to the chin and a full 10 count.

  3. I was thinking the same thing! This would be a tremendous movie in the right hands. I know how Barbara felt, though. I've seen guys in trunks that I knew were the men for me. And then they kicked sand in my face and trotted away. LOL At least she bagged him.

  4. It was actually Joan Crawford who put Franchot Tone in a coma, long before he met Neal. Great piece! When did you become such a noir nut?

  5. A bio pic of Tom Neal. Lets see, Tom Neal? Spencer Pratt! FABULOUS! And we can all cheer when Francot Tone (played by Rosie O'Donnell in a blond wig) kicks his ass and busts up his face.

  6. A fascinating story - ever thought of offering to update "Hollywood Babylon"? Jx