Hollywood's Hellfire Club – A Preliminary Review

24 Oct

By Prof. Lincoln Hurst

As promised, here are a few preliminary, personal thoughts on
HOLLYWOOD'S HELLFIRE CLUB. This, mind, you, is based on a VERY quick, preliminary reading.

First, on the negative side. The author seems to be a Hollywood beat reporter, not a scholar or a film historian. That was a huge disappointment to me. He begins his treatment of Flynn by applying to Flynn the dreadful Deitrich phrase, “Satan's Angel.” There are traces of Bret's influence here and there. The book is written in HOLLYWOOD BABYLON style, and focuses largely on the scandalous, the sensational, and the morbid. I had hoped for something more scholarly and less tabloid in approach; something like THE CASABLANCA MAN, or, in terms of Flynn's own life, your book, or Meyers's, or Valenti's. No such luck. The writer doesn't have those genes within him.

Nor could I could find one original fact or thought about Flynn; it is all culled from well-known, and well-worn, books and magazine articles, such as those by Meyers, and the autobiographies of Vincent Sherman, Rathbone, and a few others. The old Sherman story about the fake penis, Flynn, and Alan Hale (“I'll take a pound and a half!”) is of course trotted out. It's all pretty rudimentary stuff, and gives an overall tawdry impression of Flynn's life.

Flynn was, in short, a hellraiser, as befits the book's title. The author has totally missed the other Flynn, in my view – Flynn the quiet, reflective writer and percipient observer of life's drama, who is at the same time the acutely tragic Flynn. Had he dug a bit more, and not been so dedicated to shocking the senses out of his readers with morbidity and scandal, he might have found that other Flynn – at least a bit. The real Errol is notably absent here.

On the positive side, on a quick first reading I spotted only a few errors and mistypes – Aranella for Arnella (a confusion of Arabella Biship with Arnella?), the awkward and embarrassing running together of a long quote of Rathbone with the writer's own text (which should have been caught by an editor), the claim that Flynn wanted to be cremated and his ashes scattered at sea off the coast of Jamaica, the getting of a few dates wrong, etc. These are only slightly distracting and irritating.

Also positive, the author doesn't have the Bret disease of putting his foot in his mouth on every page. He also doesn't seem to be enamored with the idea that Flynn was bisexual or gay. Generally the photos are okay, a decent selection, but the ones of Flynn are all well-known. There are a few photos of the other Bundy people I hadn't seen. I did especially like one – a full-page close-up of Phyllis Decker. She's nice to look at. I'd seen a photo of her a long time ago, which led me to believe she was a looker, and the photos in this book support that. It's hard for me to put her together with Decker somehow. There's also a great pic of Barrymore and Fields, in profile, doing a mock stare-down. It delightfully illustrates the opposite extremes that the human nose can take.

Anyway, for those who like to read the tabloids at the supermarket, or who loved HOLLYWOOD BABYLON, or who know nothing at all about the lives of Decker, Barrymore, Flynn, Hartman, Fowler, Fields, Mitchell, Skelton, Carradine, etc. – this will be the book for them. But for those who already know a fair bit about these people, and have read Fowler's vastly superior MINUTES OF THE LAST MEETING, they will probably want to tear the cover off the book, frame it, and then throw the rest into the nearest trash bin.


— David DeWitt


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