Saturday, July 12, 2008

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950)


Editor's note: This time around, The Film Noir of the Week focuses on one of our favorite blondes Barbara Payton. John O'Dowd wrote the excellent biography Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, The Barbara Payton Story. O'Dowd's bio investigates Payton's complex and sometimes incredibly self-destructive personality. If you don't know much about her fascinating life, I would recommend you read it.

By John O'Dowd

As a result of the good notices she had received for her sexy performance in the 1949 crime film Trapped, by early 1950, fledgling actress (and burgeoning vamp) Barbara Payton began fielding job offers from several major film studios. Industry giant MGM screen tested her—along with starlets Lola Albright, Joi Lansing, Claudia Barrett and model Georgia Holt (the mother of Cher)—for the part of Angela, the provocative, 18-year-old mistress of crooked lawyer Louis Calhern in director John Huston’s masterpiece, The Asphalt Jungle. Though she and the other actresses that were tested for the role eventually lost out to relative newcomer Marilyn Monroe (whose appearance in the film would catapult her to fame), an extremely self-confident Barbara moved on and was subsequently offered an interview with Warner Bros. Studios. Casting was taking place for the female lead in James Cagney’s latest crime drama, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, and Barbara was again screen tested; this time, with several WB contract players. She later wrote that she found out about the movie’s casting call from “a madam plying her trade in Glendale”. Considering the caliber of people Barbara had been associating with since her arrival in Hollywood two years earlier, this assertion isn’t all that implausible.

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye came one year after James Cagney’s classic turn as psychopathic gangster Cody Jarrett in WB’s box office smash, White Heat, and it was the studio’s hope that the film would repeat, or even exceed, its forerunner’s success. Though separated in direct succession by the lackluster Cagney/Doris Day musical West Point Story in 1950, the two crime films nonetheless signified a welcome return to form for the actor, who had spent the previous few years feeling immensely frustrated as he attempted to distance himself from his screen gangster persona.

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye
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By the early 1940s, Cagney was tired of playing generic hoodlum roles at WB and wanted to tackle more diverse projects. His great success playing legendary song and dance man George M. Cohan in 1942's Yankee Doodle Dandy had earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor, and with it came a desire to exert more control over his future cinematic efforts. In 1943, Cagney and his brother Bill (who had long served as Jimmy’s manager) severed ties with WB, claiming the company had done some creative bookkeeping with his profit participation. The duo then formed an independent production company they named William Cagney Productions. The company signed a distribution deal with United Artists to produce five films at a total budget of six million dollars.

Its actual output at UA, however, was a bit less prolific. As James Cagney historian (and George Raft biographer) Stone Wallace explains, “Between 1943 and 1948, William Cagney Productions made just three films: Johnny Come Lately, Blood on the Sun and William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life, and of the three, only one—Blood on the Sun—turned a modest profit.”

Although he was enjoying the artistic freedom he had long desired, Cagney was disappointed at the lack of box office his company’s films had generated. (The Time of Your Life, for instance, had lost over half a million dollars.) But then, according to Stone Wallace, “Jack L. Warner offered the Cagney brothers a sweetheart deal they couldn’t refuse. If Jimmy would return to Warners to appear as the mother-obsessed criminal Cody Jarrett in White Heat (just the type of role and film Cagney was trying to avoid), Warners would give William Cagney Productions a co-distribution deal through which they could pay off their considerable losses.”

White Heat, of course, turned out to be a big hit, and seeing the potential financial gain, William Cagney Productions purchased a similar property for Jimmy with Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, while continuing to seek out projects that would further broaden his repertoire.

When Barbara was called to the WB lot to audition for the leading female role in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, she hadn’t expected too much to come of it. With the recent loss of the mistress part in The Asphalt Jungle still fresh on her mind, Barbara had resigned herself to the possibility that this job, too, would slip through her fingers.

She needn’t have worried. Upon viewing her screen test, Bill Cagney, who would again be producing the film, was evidently so taken with Barbara’s beauty and talent, he immediately gave her the part, and then signed her to a personal contract, to be shared equally with Jack Warner. In the winter of 1950, WB and Cagney Productions hired Barbara at $5,000 a week—quite an exorbitant amount for a Hollywood newcomer. The studio then embarked on an intensive program designed to mold their new acquisition into one of the lot's top players. This involved the usual rituals of voice, acting, and dance lessons, ballet class, and the requisite glamour shots—the results of which quickly graced the pages of many of the country's leading newspapers and movie magazines.

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is a cynical, violent film in which Barbara Payton renders what is unarguably her best and most memorable performance. She plays Cagney’s moll, “Holiday Carleton”, a good-hearted—if somewhat gullible—blonde who goes bad through her association with sadistic gangster “Ralph Cotter” (Cagney).

Adapted from the Horace McCoy novel of the same name,the screenplay has convict Cagney escaping from a brutal prison farm with the help of another inmate’s sister (played by Barbara), only to continue his criminal activities on the outside. As he plots the robbery of a local market’s payroll, he shacks up with the trampy and naive Barbara, who after being beaten by him with a rolled-up towel, quickly succumbs to his advances. Though it is known to the audience from the film’s opening frames, Barbara’s Holiday Carleton is unaware that her brother was shot and killed by Cagney—and not the authorities—during their escape.

The plot thickens when two crooked cops (played by Ward Bond and Barton MacLane) attempt to shakedown Cagney and his gang, only to be blackmailed themselves by Cagney’s far more cunning—and blatantly mad—Ralph Cotter. When Cotter dallies with a wealthy politician’s daughter (Helena Carter), a hot-tempered Holiday responds by flinging a coffee pot at him; after which, the couple make love. Only after it is revealed to the impressionable woman that he is responsible for her brother’s death, does she take her revenge by killing him.

Though Cagney is obviously the focal point of the show, the motion picture boasts a strong supporting cast of WB contract players, including the aforementioned Bond, Carter, and MacLane, as well as Steve Brodie and John Litel, with an outstanding performance by Luther Adler as a crooked lawyer who is in cahoots with Cagney.

In a veritable sea of finely wrought characterizations, Barbara acquitted herself admirably in a very high-profile part, one that brought her a great deal of public notice and media attention. In its review of the film, The Hollywood Reporter declared, “Barbara Payton, in the difficult role of a basically good girl who turns to evil in spite of herself, makes a vivid appearance. She manages the subtle transition with polished artistry.”

Legendary producer A.C. Lyles recalls the hubbub Barbara’s performance created in town upon the film’s release. “When the picture came out and I went to see it in the theater, I saw that all of those things that I heard about Barbara Payton were absolutely true. She was excellent in the part, totally believable. She really came off with a strong personality on the screen, and Barbara had that star spades! It seemed like the entire industry was talking about her.”

Author Lisa Burks, who has spent years researching the life of Barbara’s future husband, actor Franchot Tone, for the forthcoming biography Urbane Rebel: The Franchot Tone Story, also gives high marks to Barbara’s acting in the film. “She really held her own against James Cagney,” she says, “and it was a gutsy performance, particularly for a newcomer. Aside from her captivating beauty, Barbara had a lot of on-screen charisma.”

Many of the film’s reviews commented on Barbara’s sexy looks, with The New York Times stating, “...As the moll, a superbly curved young lady (named) Barbara Payton performs as though she’s trying to spit a tooth—one of the few Mr. Cagney leaves her.”

Released on August 4, 1950, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye was a fairly sizable hit, despite the film’s being banned in several Midwestern states due to its excessive violence. The profits from the picture were so good they enabled William Cagney Productions to pay off the half million dollar bank loan it owed after The Time of Your Life tanked.

Barbara would later give a great deal of credit to James and William Cagney for her initial success in Hollywood. They took a chance on her while she was still an unknown commodity, and in doing so, gave her career a perfectly respectable launch-off with her role in the film—a wonderfully generous opportunity that she never forgot.

“Barbara was crazy about James Cagney,” says her sister-in-law and longtime best friend, Jan Redfield. “She talked about how great he was to work with and said she studied hard to do just the right thing at the right time as she really wanted to please him.

“She also raved about his sister, Jeanne. She must have visited the set because Barb said she had some conversations with her and she thought she was a dynamite lady. Barbara didn’t normally complement too many other women, so Jeanne must have really impressed her.”


Barbara had idolized James Cagney ever since she saw him in person at a war bond rally in Odessa in 1943. Then just 16 years old, she had gotten to meet him that afternoon and never dreamed that six years later, she would be starring as his leading lady in a prestigious Hollywood film. “Working with James Cagney was magical, “ Barbara later wrote. “ He gave me my big break... I would have done anything for him.”

For his part, Cagney’s recollections of Barbara were cordial, but much less impassioned. He once made the comment that, “Barbara was an actress of impressive, if limited skill,” and in his 1976 autobiography, he discusses the film they co-starred in, yet never once mentions Barbara by name.

However, Cagney would certainly never forget Barbara. Nor, for that matter, would the rest of Hollywood…especially with the incredible chain of events that were still to come in her tragic, star-crossed life.


  1. Really enjoyed reading this piece. I have the Goodbye DVD here at Castle Yesteryear, and though I found it sort of underwhelming Payton is pretty darn good in it. What I like best about the movie is its corruption-infested milleu where everybody appears to be grifting and on the take.

  2. Loved this movie. I thought the courtoom bookends were unneccessary. What kind of car did Helena Carter drive?