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.
Left to right: John Barrymore, in 1920 and 1940.
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.”