#Noirvember Side Quest: The Tom Neal – Barbara Payton – Franchot Tone Love Triangle

The climax of the infamous Neal – Payton – Tone Love Triangle

I love a juicy love triangle. The drama! The fighting! The cattiness! Love triangles have it all… as long as you’re on the outside looking in.

And you cannot get much juicier than the infamous love triangle between actor and ex-boxer Tom Neal, his girlfriend actress Barbara Payton, and Barbara’s HUSBAND, actor Franchot Tone.

BACKSTORY: In the early 1950s, Tom Neal and Barbara Payton met at a Hollywood party. At this point, Neal was known for his low-budget B movies. He is best known for the 1945 low-budget noir classic, Detour. Payton on the other hand, was an up and coming starlet, having just made the 1950 film, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye with major A-list screen star, James Cagney. Neal and Payton hit it off at the party, but she soon left him after having met and becoming engaged to actor Franchot Tone.

Barbara Payton and Tom Neal, aka “the other man.”

Tone was about 20 years Payton’s senior and was an established actor when Payton was still a child. He had already been married twice prior, including a four-year marriage to screen star, Joan Crawford. It is said that during the making of the 1935 film, Dangerous, Tone’s co-star Bette Davis developed a crush on Tone and tried to become between him and Crawford. Supposedly, this was the beginning of the infamous Davis-Crawford feud. I don’t know what it was about Tone, but he was apparently a ladykiller.

The entire love triangle reaches its climax on September 14, 1951 when Tone and Neal come to blows in Payton’s front yard. It seems that Payton and Neal had resumed their affair despite her engagement to Tone. Understandably, Tone was upset. The two men brawled in the yard, but short-tempered, ex-boxer Neal was too much for Tone to take on single-handedly.

Tone lost the fight. Badly.

Tone suffered severe injuries and was hospitalized and laid unconscious in a coma for 18 hours. He suffered a broken cheekbone, nose, and a brain concussion. Inexplicably, Tone and Payton continue through with their engagement and marry two weeks later, on September 28. The Tone-Payton marriage was short-lived. Within two months, Payton was back in Neal’s arms. Tone and Payton divorced six months after the wedding. A year later, Neal and Payton were engaged, but ultimately never married.

Payton and her HUSBAND, Franchot Tone

In honor of one of Hollywood’s all-time greatest love triangles, I watched three film noir, each one featuring one of the major players in the triangle. This is in honor of #Noirvember.

Barbara Payton- “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”

Barbara Payton- Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950)

By 1949, James Cagney had tired of playing the gangster roles that made him famous at Warner Brothers. He tried striking out on his own by forming a production company with his brother, Bill. However, their first venture, The Time of Your Life, lost the brothers about $500k. Needing to pay off their debts, Cagney returned to his alma mater studio, Warner Brothers, after Jack Warner offered him a deal that he couldn’t refuse. If Cagney would appear in the leading role of Cody Jarrett in their new film, White Heat, Warner would enter into a co-distribution deal with Cagney’s production company.

White Heat was a massive success. The Cagney brothers set out to find another vehicle for their studio to produce. They settled upon Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, and needed a leading lady. Barbara Payton, a young starlet previously known for the film noir, Trapped, was called to Warner Brothers to audition. The Cagney brothers liked her and signed her to a contract with their production company and Warner Brothers.

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye featured James Cagney as Ralph, a convict who has escaped from prison with assistance from a fellow inmate’s sister, Holiday, played by Payton. Payton’s Holiday is a kind, yet naive blonde, who ends up becoming a villain through her association with Ralph. After escaping from prison, Ralph goes right back to his old ways. He immediately plans a robbery of a local grocery store’s payroll.

Later, Ralph is pursued by two policemen, played by Ward Bond and Barton MacLane. They find themselves with the short end of the stick however, when Ralph blackmails them, forcing them to acquiesce to his demands. Throughout the film, Ralph and Holiday have a tumultuous relationship.

Payton is fantastic in this film; but unfortunately, this film would prove to be both the biggest break of her career, and the peak. By the mid-50s, Payton’s career was pretty much over and she was on the fast-track to destitution due to her alcohol and drug addiction. Unfortunately, Payton’s demand for drugs and alcohol outpaced her supply of funds–leading to her becoming a prostitute. At perhaps her lowest point, Payton was only charging men $10 for her “services.”

Payton died in 1967 of heart and liver failure. She was only 39.

Tom Neal- “Detour” (1945)

Tom Neal had been dabbling in very small bit parts for the past few years before landing the lead role in the now classic and highly acclaimed film noir, Detour. Detour was very low budget, no doubt aided by its use of relatively unknown actors, low-frills sets, rear-projection, and on-location shots. Detour lacks the pizazz and production of more A-list film noir productions, but its lack of glitz and gritty appearance is what gives the film its charm.

The film opens with Al Roberts (Neal), in Reno, sipping coffee in a diner. He looks disheveled and worried. A customer plays a song on the jukebox, which angers Al. It seems that that song triggers some negative memories from Al’s past.

The film flashes back to what appear to be happier times in Al’s life. Al worked as a nightclub pianist in a small New York City club. He is madly in love with the nightclub’s vocalist, Sue (Claudia Drake). He proposes marriage to her, but she declines stating that she’s moving to Hollywood to pursue her dreams of fame and stardom. Awkward. Adding to the heartbreak is her announcement that she’s leaving the next day. Depressed, Al tries to make it work without Sue, but can’t seem to move on. He decides that he’s going to travel to Hollywood and try to win her back.

Not having any money, Al decides to hitchhike from New York City to Hollywood. We are treated to a sweet montage of Al making his way across country. In Arizona, Al meets a wealthy motorist, Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), picks Al up with the intention of driving him to Hollywood. Along the way, Al admires some large, deep scars on Haskell’s wrists. Haskell states that he received these injuries from a female hitchhiker he picked up in Louisiana and just abandoned in Arizona.

On the road, while Haskell sleeps and Al drives, Al suspects that something is wrong with Haskell. There is foreshadowing present in the film as we see Haskell pop pills constantly up until this point, leading us to believe that he’s either a junkie or he’s battling an ailment. I suspect the latter. Anyway, Al pulls over and opens the passenger door to try and get a rise out of Haskell. Haskell tumbles out and hits his head on a rock.

Realizing that the man is dead, Al becomes paranoid that he’ll be suspected in Haskell’s murder. Circumstantial evidence would point in his direction. Making matters worse, Al takes Haskell’s money, clothing and car and continues on his way toward Hollywood.

Then he picks up a female hitchhiker, Vera (The amazing ANN SAVAGE). Big mistake. Big. Vera is absolutely insane.

It is at this point when I need to segue away from Tom Neal and talk about the amazing ANN SAVAGE. This woman was so fantastic and absolutely bonkers. I don’t know why she didn’t appear in more films. She should be the femme fatale in everything. ANN SAVAGE also appeared in an episode of “Saved by the Bell.”

Tom Neal never made another great film like Detour. He tried to muddle along, but by 1951, he was done. His pummeling of screen star, Franchot Tone, finished off Neal’s career. He found civilian work in the 50s performing landscaping and gardening. However, he had a very quick temper, culminating in the 1965 gunshot death of his third wife. Despite claiming innocence, Neal was found guilty of murder. His charges were later reduced to involuntary manslaughter. Neal served 6 years in prison, being released in 1972.

Neal died in August of 1972 of a heart attack. He was 58 years old.

Franchot Tone- “Phantom Lady” (1944)

Prior to his marriage to Barbara Payton, Franchot Tone had been a star in Hollywood. He wasn’t a major star like Clark Gable or Cary Grant, but he appeared in A-list productions and worked steadily. His first wife was Joan Crawford. He was nominated for an Oscar in 1935 for his performance in Mutiny on the Bounty. Of the three people involved in the infamous Payton, Neal, Tone love triangle, Franchot Tone was arguably the biggest star.

Tone primarily played a sophisticated professional or a mild-mannered man to contrast with his more bombastic leading ladies (e.g. Bette Davis). He wasn’t known for playing the villain or being a major figure of film noir. However, in 1944, Tone does both. He plays the villain in the 1944 Robert Siodmak film, Phantom Lady.

In Phantom Lady, Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) goes out on a date with a woman he meets in a bar. She is very unhappy about the recent passing of her husband. He is equally unhappy about his failing marriage. After much prodding, Scott gets the woman to go out to a show with him. She is very mysterious, she won’t even tell him her name.

They ride in a taxi, visit a bar, and go to a show in the course of their evening together. When Scott arrives home, he finds his wife murdered. The police are also on the premises and Scott is taken into custody after circumstantial evidence and lack of an alibi for his activities make him the #1 suspect in his wife’s murder. He even goes through a trial, is found guilty, and is placed on death row. His execution date is only a few weeks out. They do not mess around when it comes to death row in old films.

Scott’s secretary, Carol Richman (Ella Raines) who is also secretly in love with him, does not believe that he murdered his wife. She seeks out to visit each of the people who were known to have seen Scott and the mysterious woman: the taxi driver, the bartender, the performer at the club, and the drummer at the same club (Elisha Cook Jr). However, each person pretends to have no knowledge of having seen either Scott or this woman.

Convinced that something sketchy is going on, Carol’s investigation deepens. She gains assistance from Detective Burgess (Thomas Gomez) who offers his assistance despite the case being officially closed. Burgess finds Scott’s alibi (“My date had a ridiculous hat”) so absurd and juvenile that he couldn’t possibly be lying. Of course as many of these movies go, as Carol gets deeper and deeper to the real answer, the more danger she finds herself in.

About halfway through the film, Scott’s best friend, Jack Marlow (Tone), appears, supposedly having just arrived back home from South America. Jack insinuates himself into Carol’s investigation. As the film progresses and we see more of Jack, the more that he seems “off.” He seems to have a preoccupation with his hands and seems to suffer from some type of psychosis.

Tone continued to work steadily throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Unlike ex-wife Barbara Payton and her beau (and his attacker) Tom Neal, whose careers were essentially over after their infamous altercation, Tone’s career did not suffer. He worked in film, television and drama regularly throughout the remainder of his life.

Tone died of lung cancer in 1968 at the age of 63.