It’s one of the oddest and creepiest tales to emerge from the decadence of old Hollywood and key players in celebrity grave robbing have gone on the record to confirm the gruesome tale of a corpse partying after its time on Earth was long done.
Silent movie legend John Barrymore who starred in the 1920 version of JEKYLL & HYDE was a hard drinking boisterous prankster who survived the transition from silent to talkies. He was the eldest of a famous family of thespians including Lionel and Ethel Barrymore and his granddaughter is Drew Barrymore.
Barrymore was drinking buddies with a bunch of Tinsel Town boozers including ROBIN HOOD swashbuckling lothario Errol Flynn, W. C. Fields, and director Raoul Walsh – among other such notables. They called themselves the Bundy Drive Gang and specialized in irreverent high-brow carousing – intellectual boozehounds that delighted in pranking one another. They made Sinatra’s Rat Pack seem a bunch of choirboys when it came to excessive boozing and whoring.
One long standing account of their escapades was Flynn’s involvement in the post-mortem adventures of longtime pal John Barrymore’s corpse. Bereft over the death of their ringleader in all times debauched, Barrymore’s pals lifted “The Great Profile” from the mortuary and took the corpse into to Flynn’s house for a macabre “farewell party” which may very well have been the inspiration for the 1980s flick WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S.
In his memoir MY WICKED, WICKED WAYS, Flynn recalled the horrifying tale. When his mentor and drinking buddy Barrymore died suddenly from pneumonia and cirrhosis of the liver on May 29, 1942, Flynn was so overcome with loss and grief he dove head first into an uncontrollable bender, drowning his sorrows at LA’s famed Cock and Bull Bar with THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON director Raoul Walsh.
While Flynn was still chug-a-lugging, Walsh excused himself, saying he was too upset to continue the wake and slipped out. Walsh hopped in his car and paid a quick visit to the Pierce Brothers mortuary which was where the late Barrymore lay in state. After a bankroll exchanged hands, Walsh bribed the parlor director, retrieved the departed, dumped him in the car and drove back to Flynn’s mansion. Walsh awoke Fynn’s groggy butler to help bring the stiff inside.
“Mr. Barrymore’s drunk – so lend me a hand,” he recalled, telling the groggy butler. “I think he’s dead,” the butler snapped.
“You’ve seen him like this before,” Walsh insisted, “So help lend me a hand.
“All right – but he looks dead to me!'”
Walsh and the butler dragged Barrymore inside, carefully positioning the cadaver on Flynn’s expansive couch – looking for all the world as if he were simply passed-out.
Walsh ordered the butler to get the SVENGALI star some coffee to sober him up. The sight of a passed out Barrymore on the couch was nothing new to Flynn’s butler so off he went.
After draining the bar dry at the Cock and Bull, a highly intoxicated Flynn wobbly staggered home. At first, Flynn didn’t notice anything unusual when he entered.
“He sat down in his favorite chair and was talking about something or other, when the butler came back in saying ‘Here’s Mr. Barrymore’s coffee,'” Walsh recalled.
“And with that, Flynn saw Jack and ran out of the house screaming. He hid behind a bush in the yard, yelling, “Get him out of here! You are going to get us all of us put in San Quentin!’
“Well, I took Jack back to the funeral home and the mortician asked me where I’d taken him” Walsh recalled. “I said we went to Errol Flynn’s.
“You did?! he said. ‘Why, if I’d have known you were going to take him up there, I would have put a better suit on him!'”
Yet, according to an official Barrymore biographer, there was only one visitor to the funeral parlor, a well-known prostitute “who knelt and prayed and continued on her way in silence.” Gene Fowler, a member of the Bundy Drive Gang claimed he and his son were the only ones who stood vigil with Barrymore’s corpse with nary a drunken movie director nor painted lady in sight.
In Richard Schickel’s 1973 documentary THE MEN WHO MADE THE MOVIES, Walsh went on the record again, confirming Errol Flynn’s account of the body snatch heist and practical joke.
Sadly, for Flynn, the death of Barrymore was more than the loss of a drinking buddy. He had worshipped the legendary thespian, modeling his own career and personal lifestyle after the star. So much so Flynn played Barrymore in a boozy biopic penned by his daughter Diana appropriately titled TOO MUCH, TOO SOON – which could very well have been Flynn’s epitaph as well.
Within a year of the film’s release, he was dead at age 50.