john barymore and dinner at eight

Linette and I watched the 1934 film “Dinner at Eight” last night. I don’t know what I was expecting – maybe a madcap comedy – but what we got was really depressing stuff. I mean, I knew it was written during the Great Depression, and revolved to some extent around the theme of personal failure, but I wasn’t expecting anything from Hollywood during that period to be so dark. I thought we might see a pie fight, but certainly not a realistic portrayal of alcoholism and a suicide… The thing that particularly struck me was John Barrymore’s performance as Larry Renault, a formerly great actor who, no longer in demand due to his age and binge drinking, ends up taking his own life. It was a heart-wrenching piece of work, and particularly poignant given the fact that the character so closely resembled the actor himself, an infamous drunk. As though the connection weren’t clear enough already, they even go so far as to refer to the Renault as “The Profile,” a well-known nickname bestowed on Barrymore decades earlier.

The whole thing just struck me as terribly sad and it made me wonder what the circumstances were behind his agreeing to take the roll, which seems to cut so painfully close to the bone. I was wondering if perhaps it had to do with desperation, or if maybe he found it therapeutic in some way. (In the film, his character, a former matinee idol, ends up being put in a position where he has to pawn his cufflinks for booze and then beg for the role of a “dead beachcomber” in an off-Broadway play.) It struck me as brilliant portrayal of drunkenness, but, then again, I suppose it’s possible that he was drunk at the time of filming, which only makes it all the more pathetic…. Anyway, I’ve got a number of other things I need to be working on this evening, but I find myself compelled to search the internet for stories on the production of “Dinner at Eight,” and about John Barrymore’s tragic last years.

So far, I’ve just been able to find one brief article, on the Turner Classic Movies site, that touches on the subject of Barrymore’s involvement and his take on the role. Here’s a clip:

…Mayer also objected to casting two of the film’s biggest stars–John Barrymore and Jean Harlow. He was worried about Barrymore’s drinking and erratic behavior, but Cukor assured him that they had developed a good working relationship on A Bill of Divorcement (1932). On the set of Dinner at Eight Barrymore was cooperative and helpful. Far from resisting comparisons between himself and his character, a fading matinee idol succumbing to alcoholism, he suggested playing up the similarities. At his instigation, Marion and co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz added references to his profile and his three wives. On the set, he even improvised imitations of faded actors he’d run into in New York…

One more sad, sad side-note… It seems as though the actor’s body was taken from the mortuary after his death and used to play a prank on fellow playboy/actor Errol Flynn, with whom Barrymore was living when his body gave way to the ravages of alcohol. I suppose it could have been his idea, but it’s still a terribly sad and undignified way to have ended one’s tiem on earth… Here’s a clip from the Internet Move Database:

After Barrymore’s death on May 29, 1942, his corpse was taken to the Pierce Brothers’ mortuary on Sunset Boulevard. Barrymore had been staying with his friend Errol Flynn for several weeks prior to his death and Errol and some other friends, including the madcap director Raoul Walsh, gathered at a bar to commiserate on John’s passing. Walsh, claiming he was too upset to socialize, pretended to go home. Instead, he and two friends went to the funeral home and bribed the caretaker, giving him $200 to lend them Barrymore’s body for awhile. Transporting it to Flynn’s house in Walsh’s station wagon, they propped it in Errol’s favorite living room chair, which they positioned to face the door. Flynn arrived late and described his reaction in his autobiography: “I walked in, sad and alone. As I opened the door I pressed the button. The lights went on and – I stared into the face of Barrymore. His eyes were closed. He looked puffed, white, bloodless. They hadn’t embalmed him yet. I let out a delirious scream.” Errol bolted from the house, intending to flee in his car. His friends caught up with him on the porch and convinced him it was only a gag. “I went back in, still shaking. I retired to my room upstairs shaken and sober. My heart pounded. I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night.

I don’t have time to get into the rest of the film here, but “Dinner at Eight” is worth getting, if only for the performances of Barrymore and Marie Dressler, who plays an aging actress of screen and stage… Really, it’s an interesting film. Trust me.

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2 Comments

  1. mark
    Posted December 5, 2005 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    I defense of the guys who used his body to “punk” Flynn, when I opened my front door this evening I imagined finding a dead Drew Barrymore waiting for me in chair and it was pretty fucking hillarious.

  2. Kathleen
    Posted December 15, 2005 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the movie recommendation. Sounds like one I’d like.

    On the other hand, those pranksters are pretty lucky that Errol Flynn didn’t have a heart attack…or kill them!

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