Happy Jane Russell Friday! If this summer is too hot and sticky for you, relax and enjoy our alternate, virtual summer with a photo of Jane…in color…on a beach…in a bathing suit! Oh, dear, you’re getting hot and sticky again…
The following is my entry in The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, being hosted Aug. 12-15, 2015 by the blog In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood to honor Ethel Barrymore’s 136th birthday. Click on the above banner, and read a wide range of blog entries related to several generations of “the royal family of Hollywood,” the acting Barrymores!
DISCLAIMER: The primary source for this article was the book Hollywood’s Hellfire Club: The Misadventures of John Barrymore, W.C. Fields, Errol Flynn and “The Bundy Drive Boys” (Feral House, 2007), by Gregory William Mank with Charles Heard and Bill Nelson. A more sobering (forgive the pun) and cautionary tale about the consequences of alcoholism you’ll never find. If you haven’t read the book, I’ll say what I always say with my movie reviews: Major spoilers ahead!
Before there was a Rat Pack, there were the Bundy Drive Boys.
When it came to drawing similarly minded men into his alcoholic orbit, John Barrymore (above, center) was truly a celestial being. His pack of Bundy Drive Boys had amazingly similar dysfunctions: mother issues, misogyny, and endless self-loathing, which no amount of booze could ever extinguish (though heaven knows it wasn’t for lack of trying). Over the course of two decades, the following men fell into the circle of Barrymore idolatry:
artist John Decker, best known for both his cockeyed paintings of celebrities and for his masterful forgeries of Old Masters’ works, which he delighted in selling to pretentious Hollywood art collectors as though his paintings were the genuine articles. Decker’s home on Bundy Drive was the group’s meeting place, and its entranceway sported a Decker-painted coat-of-arms, underneath which read the phrase, “Useless. Insignificant. Poetic.”
Sadakichi Hartmann, a half-German, half-Japanese artist who avoided bathing on a regular basis and whose outrageous live shows presaged much of today’s performance art. One of Hartmann’s efforts was a “Perfume Concert” in which he attempted to waft Germany-related scents towards the paying audience. At one performance, when the audience responded negatively, Hartmann tried to burn the theater down.
Gene Fowler, a journalist and writer who had such disdain and distrust for Hollywood that he demanded to be paid daily for his work. He later chronicled the frolics of the Bundy Drive Boys in the book Minutes of the Last Meeting.
Alan Mowbray, a British actor who accumulated countless movie and TV acting credits, yet hated the sight of his face on-screen and never viewed any of his own work.
Roland Young, best known for his Oscar-nominated role as Topper in the movie of the same name. When he appeared with Barrymore in a silent-film version of Sherlock Holmes, Barrymore feared that co-star Young was getting lost in the shuffle, so Barrymore gave him bits of business to do. Later, upon seeing the finished film, Barrymore realized that Young had stolen every scene.
Thomas Mitchell, famed character actor of Stagecoach (for which he won an Oscar), Gone with the Wind, and It’s a Wonderful Life (as Uncle Billy).
John Carradine, who had a bad case of Shakespeare out the yin-yang, reciting The Bard’s work loudly at every opportunity (including one evening at an empty Hollywood Bowl, waking director John Ford out of a sound sleep). Carradine took Z-movie horror roles to finance his Shakespeare productions, which killed his chances of ever being taken seriously in Hollywood.
Ben Hecht, amazing writer (often with partner Charles MacArthur) of renowned plays and movies including The Front Page, Underworld, and the original Scarface.
Errol Flynn, swashbuckling movie hero whose sexual proclivities were no secret to anyone in Hollywood, nor to anyone else after a 1943 statutory rape trial from which he barely escaped conviction.
W.C. Fields, legendary stage and movie comedian and (next to Barrymore) surely the most famously alcoholic of the group. In one instance, Fields made his way to Bundy Drive shortly after enduring an unpleasant medical exam. “That nitwit doctor!” Fields complained to his friends. “The nefarious quack claimed he found urine in my whiskey!”
Anthony Quinn, the youngest of the group (he was only 27 when Barrymore died) and, at that point, mostly a supporting movie actor in “ethnic” roles. Perhaps Quinn’s primary value to the group was that, having the same blood type as Barrymore and Decker, he could be (and often was) relied upon to provide blood transfusions for them.
“These men lived intensely,” wrote Gene Fowler, “as do children and poets and jaguars.” And they often behaved as wildly as those three varied groups as well. They played pranks on each other (and on greater Hollywood), wept when Anthony Quinn recited Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to them, and caroused and drank through the night in their attempts to stave off Father Time.
Women were the bane of the group, and vice versa. The men’s wives and girlfriends despised this all-boys club, and between various issues of parental desertion and sexual abuse, the men had enough female-related issues to rationalize their drinking for decades. Thus much of the social life of Barrymore & Co. revolved around the comings and goings at Bundy Drive — as if, like a dementedly happy ending from a W.C. Fields comedy, they could drink their way out of psychic misery.
Indeed, the group seemed to feel that the only cure for alcoholism was to give themselves over to it freely, resulting in an inordinate amount of black humor. One example was Decker’s drawing of Barrymore and Fields, lying side by side as they received an intravenous drip from the same container — a bottle marked “Gin.”
Barrymore’s descent into alcoholism was like a mudslide, starting slowly but picking up momentum as it went along. From being a mesmerizing stage and screen actor who drew crowds of feverish fans in the 1920’s, he spent the next decade and beyond devolving into a boozy caricature of himself.
As Barrymore’s Bundy Drive friends were in similar straits, they had no recourse or resources to help him turn his life around. Indeed, the only person who dared to even point out Barrymore’s sharp decline was Diana, Barrymore’s estranged daughter from his second marriage. She came to Hollywood four months before Barrymore died and chastized Decker for assisting Barrymore in his decadent lifestyle. In turn, Barrymore (at least by Diana’s own account) asked Diana to go to bed with him. She never saw him again after that.
In May of 1942, Barrymore was rehearsing for a radio show when he had his final collapse. He spent 11 days in a hospital where Decker, Fowler, Mitchell, and Mowbray were always nearby, and Quinn visited as well. Fields, uncomfortable with dying and the dead, simply sent Barrymore a telegram stating, “You can’t do this to me.”
On Barrymore’s final day of life, when Fowler saw Barrymore deliriously tearing at his eczema-inflamed skin, he couldn’t take anymore and left. Decker, ever the inspired artist, did a famous drawing of Barrymore in his twilight hours (shown below).
Shortly thereafter, Barrymore died. The primary cause of death was cirrhosis of the liver. Barrymore’s medical examiner did some figuring and conservatively concluded that, based on Barrymore’s 40 years of drinking, he had consumed 3,200 gallons of alcohol in his lifetime.
Hartmann, Fields, and Decker died within five years after Barrymore — cirrhosis of the liver was a prime or related cause of Fields’ and Decker’s deaths, and it would be for Flynn’s — and the boys’ club began to disband from there. The last surviving member — and the one who seemingly achieved the most success — was Anthony Quinn, who died in 2001 at age 86 after a (two-) Oscar-winning career.
Strangely, the macabre story of John Barrymore doesn’t quite end there. In his will, Barrymore stated that he wished to be cremated upon death, but his brother Lionel vetoed that request and opted for burial. 37 years later, in a caper worthy of the Bundy Drive Boys, Barrymore’s son, John Drew Barrymore (“Johnny”) decided to carry out his father’s wishes, and he enlisted his son, John Blyth Barrymore (“John III”) to assist in the project. (Both are shown above.)
Through a series of elaborate machinations (none of them involving “my insane Barrymore relatives,” as John III put it), the junior Barrymores exhumed the body from the Main Mausoleum in Whittier, CA.’s Catholic Calvary Cemetery and took it to the nearest crematory. Johnny decided that he had to have a last look at his father (while John III declined, the body’s decaying stench having repulsed him from the idea). When Johnny left the crematory, he was pale and crying. “Thank God I’m drunk,” he told his son. “I’ll never remember it.”
Even though I’ve already been nominated twice for a Liebster, I can’t get enough of it. Somebody you know only online actually solicits your opinions. Heck, my wife hardly does that these days!
Anyway, a woman named Angela runs a blog named The Hollywood Revue, and she was recently nominated for a Liebster. She stated that she didn’t want to nominate anyone herself, so she stated her 11 questions and then left them open for anyone to answer. Cue the attention-seeking blogger!
1. Favorite movie blonde bombshell?
Valerie Perrine, a talented and outrageously built actress who, in the 1970’s and early ’80s, seemed to have no compunction whatsoever about posing nude. As a randy college student, I called this a win-win.
2. Do you think Citizen Kane is overrated?
On the contrary. I first saw it in a college film class 35 years ago and was totally floored by it. I still watch it every so often, checking it on it as if it was an old friend, and it never fails to satisfy.
3. Name your four favorite movies from the 1940’s.
4. If you could own a prop from any movie, which one would it be?
I guess it would be the accoutrements of Buster Keaton’s regular silent-film costume, the way it’s shown in the photo on the opening page of Rudi Blesh’s biography Keaton.
5. Favorite non-American film?
Cinema Paradiso, a movie that’s a compendium of all the reasons I love movies.
6. Name a movie you hope they never, ever announce a remake of.
Is it overstating the case to just go with everything? You know the remake craze has gone out of control when they’re re-making superhero movies less than a decade after the first version came out. Go out on a limb and try something original already.
7. If you could have attended the world premiere of any film, which one would it have been?
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It’s my favorite movie musical, and I’d have probably been popeyed to see Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in person — although in retrospect, they’d have probably kicked me out for suggesting to Jane that she dip something other than just her hands in the Grauman’s Chinese cement.
8. What’s your biggest guilty pleasure movie?
Swamp Thing. Adrienne Barbeau, braless…Oh, don’t make me rehash this again for my regular blog readers, it’s just too painful.
9. Name a movie you feel doesn’t get as much credit as it deserves.
Albert Brooks’ priceless 1985 comedy Lost in America. Full of some of the funniest movie dialogue ever, plus a sly indictment of America’s upper-middle-class and the kind of people who claim they want to live life more basically…but not without their creature comforts.
10. What’s your all-time favorite movie quote?
“There’s always a bigger fish.” It’s from Star Wars Episode I, not exactly regarded as a film classic, yet I find that line fits so many situations in life.
11. If your life were turned into a biopic, who would you want to direct it?
There’s only one person whom I’d deem appropriate, and Ed Wood is long gone.
Everyone has been “reporting” this on the Internet today, but I have to jump on the bandwagon because it means so much to me.
Today is Bugs Bunny’s 75th birthday. By that, we mean that 75 years ago today saw the release of A Wild Hare, the first cartoon that features Bugs Bunny, as well as his adversary Elmer Fudd, in the forms in which we now recognize them. (Above is the model sheet used by the animators to show them how to “pose” Bugs, though as you can see, he wasn’t named Bugs at that point.)
Below is the cartoon, for you to enjoy. It was directed by the legendary Tex Avery and set the template for all Bugs-Elmer encounters to come; although the pacing is leisurely compared to the heights that would follow, the cartoon is still quite enjoyable on its own terms.
Supposedly, a major source of inspiration for Magical Mystery Tour was some home movies that Paul McCartney had been making at the time — and a home movie is certainly what the film resembles.
Had this movie been secreted away in a box for decades and found only yesterday, it would probably have been regarded as an unsung (ahem) Beatles gem. Unfortunately, it aired on BBC1 on Boxing Day 1967 and had been touted as a major event, which it definitely was not.
The movie follows a British tour bus whose stops are filled with supposedly zany events dictated by five skybound magicians (the Beatles and their roadie Mal Evans). But none of it amounts to very much. Actions that could have been cute if they’d been only throwaway gags or short skits are stretched far beyond their worth. In one scene written by John, he plays a restaurant waiter who plies Ringo’s plus-sized and voraciously hungry aunt with, literally, shovelfuls of spaghetti. It gets pretty gross to watch.
On the plus side, there are mildly funny appearances by Beatles film veteran Victor Spinetti, and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (including Neil Innes, later to make his mark with Monty Python and the Beatles parody The Rutles). And the Beatles’ songs, of course, are wonderful. Probably the movie’s best song visualization is its appropriately wacko take on John’s surreal “I Am the Walrus.”
In the end, it’s a spotty effort best noted for its wasted potential. As with Charlie Chaplin’s last couple of feature films, Beatles completists will want to see Magical Mystery Tour just to say that they’ve seen it — but it’s not likely to be held dear in their hearts.
The following is my second of two entries in The 2nd Annual British Invaders Blogathon, hosted by the blog A Shroud of Thoughts. Click on the above banner, and read some great critiques of a wide range of British and Britain-related movies!
The Beatles’ Help! has just as wispy a plot as its predecessor, A Hard Day’s Night, and probably much less reason for its existence. But if you’re willing to give yourself over to it, it’s very good-natured and funny.
Perhaps it helps to see it a half-century after its creation. The spirit of Monty Python and other British comedy has become so firmly embedded in our subconscious that Help!’s endless string of non-sequitor gags somehow comes together and makes sense. When the movie was first released, it was probably enough for most people simply to see The Beatles clowning and singing on-screen in full color.
The movie’s shaggy-dog plot is that Ringo finds himself wearing a ring that makes him the target of a religious sacrifice for an Eastern cult. Through even more plot machinations, the ring becomes a morbid point of fascination for a mad scientist (Victor Spinetti, the neurotic TV director from A Hard Day’s Night). Thus, the movie pretty much turns into one long chase, halted every so often so that The Beatles can sing one of their beloved hit songs.
Critics and moviegoers who have sought a coherent plot and characters to root for have long come away shaking their heads at this movie. But in these days of raunchy, flatulent film comedy, a quaint, eager-to-please number such as Help! looks better all the time.
Besides The Beatles and the rest of the cast being quite game for the movie’s silliness, you have to love the blackout-sketch-type jokes, as when the initial sacrificial virgin returns home to get a bath from her mother, who chides her daughter for coming home with grimy sacrificial paint all over herself.
Screenwriter Marc Behm — and, certainly, director/silent-comedy enthusiast Richard Lester — manage to pull off a cheerily farcical tone throughout, even as Ringo is continually under threat (often from his own bandmates) of getting a finger lopped off. (The film’s sense of humor extends to Ken Thorne’s orchestral soundtrack, which slyly riffs on a number of previous Beatles tunes.)
Beatles lore tells us that this movie was filmed near the end of the Fabs’ “escapist” period, shortly before they ditched their moon/spoon-type lyrics and started reaching for something deeper in pop artistry. As such, Help! is a nostalgic, often hilarious valedictory to The Beatles’ “growing up” years.
(If you enjoyed this blog, please click here to read my first British Invaders Blogathon entry about The Beatles’ movie debut, A Hard Day’s Night.)
The title of this made-for-TV documentary, The Unknown Marx Brothers, is obviously meant to evoke memories of Unknown Chaplin, the astounding 1983 British documentary featuring much previously unseen footage of Charlie Chaplin. Unknown Marx Brothers isn’t quite in that league but is well done and quite eye-popping nonetheless.
Narrated by actor-turned-slapstick-comedian Leslie Nielsen, Unknown offers a wealth of facts, interviews, and TV and movie clips. There’s minutia that was little-known prior to this bio, such as the birth of a sixth Marx Brother, Manfred, who died shortly after birth. Interviewees include Groucho’s first daughter Miriam, Chico’s daughter Maxine, and two of Harpo’s adopted children, Bill and Minnie; Maxine and Bill, in particular, are most generous with their facts about the Marxes’ career and their anecdotes about growing up as Marx children.
Most astounding is the doc’s wealth of clips, many of them rarely seen. Trailers for nearly every Marx Bros. movie are shown. A scene from Harpo’s film debut in Too Many Kisses (1925) shows that, ironically, this silent movie was the only film appearance in which Harpo had dialogue (albeit in a subtitle).
Generous clips from the Marxes’ TV work include segments from: the TV pilot for Groucho’s quiz show “You Bet Your Life”; an attempted Chico pilot named “Papa Luigi”; a 1959 extended routine (beautifully preserved on video) between Harpo and Milton Berle; one of Groucho’s final TV appearances, on 1973’s “The New Bill Cosby Show”; and most interestingly for Marx buffs, reassembled footage from the Marxes’ final team work, the aborted TV pilot “Deputy Seraph,” depicting Harpo and Chico as pratfalling angels commandeered by heavenly boss Groucho.
There are nitpicking debits with the show. The background music, credited to Harpo’s son Bill, sounds like random spewings from a synthesizer. Many of the less savory details of the Marxes’ lives, such as mother Minnie’s overdominance and Groucho’s beleaguered final years, are simply ignored — as are, strangely, the final deaths of the Marxes, leaving any Marx novice to wonder if they’re still alive. And while much of the doc’s second half features very funny footage from “You Bet Your Life,” this seems a too-often-used source (perhaps because it has been used so much by less imaginative TV shows). But overall, Marx Bros. completists will find much to shout about here.