Here’s a story about a sinner,
He used to be a winner who enjoyed a life of prominence and position,
But the pressures at the office and his socialite engagements,
And his selfish wife’s fanatical ambition,
It turned him to the booze,
And he got mixed up with a floosie
And she led him to a life of indecision.
The floosie made him spend his dole
She left him lying on Skid Row
A drunken lag in some Salvation Army Mission.
It’s such a shame.
Oh demon alcohol,
Sad memories I cannot recall,
Who thought I would say,
Damn it all and blow it all,
Oh demon alcohol,
Memories I cannot recall,
Who thought I would fall a slave to demon alcohol.
Sad memories I cannot recall,
Who thought I would fall a slave to demon alcohol.
Barley wine, pink gin,
He’ll drink anything,
Port, pernod or tequila,
Rum, scotch, vodka on the rocks,
As long as all his troubles disappeared.
But he messed up his life, went and beat up his wife,
And the floosie’s gone and found another sucker
She’s gonna turn him on to drink
She’s gonna lead him to the brink
And when his money’s gone,
She’ll leave him in the gutter,
It’s such a shame ( Alcohol. Ray Davies. The Kinks )
It’s not a pretty subject, but alcoholism has been portrayed in Hollywood movies since the earliest days of the silent cinema. In 1914, the silent movie version of Jack London’s 1913 autobiogaphical novel John Barleycorn was released to theaters by W.W. Hodkinson. Featuring Elmer Clifton, Antrim Short, Matty Roubert, Viola Barry, Hobart Bosworth and Elmo Lincoln, John Barleycorn graphically depicted one man’s titanic battle with the bottle. Hollywood, as a meaning producing, meaning making social structure, like the social structure that it reflects, has, since its inception, been preoccupied with alcohol, drinking, the drunkard, the problem drinker, and the alcoholic. For over a century the alcoholic movies, along with other cultural texts have defined alcohol and alcoholism for American society.
Hollywood’s definition of alcoholism and who is an alcoholic have shifted and changed, as broad historical, cultural, medical, and ideological meanings changed. Films produced in the early silent era, 1908-1920, reflected the dry values of the temperance movement. alcoholism was seen as a failure of self-will and sinful. Happiness and abstinence went hand in hand. Eventually, social realism and social consciousness ( 1944-1962) pushed against the restraints of the Hays Commission to create meaningful portrayal, but generally, and since, alcohol has been framed in a context that has tended to romanticize the issue.
One of the first films ever made, “Dream of a Rarebit Fiend”, by Edwin S. Porter in 1906, has alcohol and its consumption as its central theme: “The opening picture shows a young man seated at a table in a restaurant. He has evidently been out for a good time with the “boys” and is winding up the night’s frolic with a Welsh Rarebit and a few bottles of Bass’ ale. After stuffing himself with the entire contents of the chafing dish, and washing it down with numerous glasses of ale, he starts for home somewhat the worse for wear. The exterior of the cafe is next shown. Presently the “Rarebit Fiend” comes out of the building. He stumbles and staggers along the street, but manages to keep on his feet by holding on to the iron railing in front of the cafe. Arriving at the corner of the street he endeavors to reach a friendly lamp-post. Everything is in a whirl. The buildings, trees, trolley cars and wagons are rapidly zig-zagging along the street, while the lamp-post sways and dances around. After many futile attempts the “Rarebit Fiend” finally succeeds in throwing his arms around the lamp-post and waves his handkerchief to imaginary companions. A diminutive policeman nows appears and realizing the young man’s condition endeavors to assist him. A rough and tumble wrestling match follows, but the “cop” finally manages to get him on his feet and starts him off for home.”
“This is the way I look when I’m sober. It’s enough to make a person drink, wouldn’t you say? You see, the world looks so dirty to me when I’m not drinking. Joe, remember Fisherman’s Wharf? The water when you looked too close? That’s the way the world looks to me when I’m not drinking.21; – Lee Remick as Kirsten Arnesen Clay,( Days of Wine and Roses. Blake Edwards )
W.C. Fields was the template for the Hollywood drunk, the semi-functional socially acceptable side of drinking. He essentially played a drunk wallowing in some state of dysfunction or another in every movie he made. A great example for the purposes alcohol is his role as Egbert Souse (‘soo-say!’) in The Bank Dick, a classic Fields film by any measure. The quotes attributed to Fields, in character and out of it, are a running homage to drinking, including his classic line: ‘A woman drove me to drink and I didn’t even have the decency to thank her.’
Casting against type was a Billy Wilder gift that seemingly came like inspiration from nowhere. He persuaded the generally comically-genial Ray Milland to play a gritty alcoholic in The Lost Weekend. The role in this case, was considered to have a moral-image problem; until then alcoholic characters were generally portrayed as lovable comic types, like W.C. Fields. The result was salutary in this case as won an Oscar. The plot saw creatively blocked writer Don Birnam ‘one’s too many and a thousand’s not enough’ as Burnam, an alcoholic’s alcoholic, crumbling fast during a weekend bender in New York City. Milland, previously seen in films as a lightweight romantic comedy lead, caused a sensation as a man who starts out hiding booze bottles in ceiling lights and ends up in a straight jacket in the Bellevue drunk tank with the DTs and shrieking in mad terror. Seeing a actor take a slug of cheap booze in a Hollywood film would never be the same.
This early articulation of an uncontrollable, self-destructive, alcoholic binge,demons, and frenzy also featured the wife ,Jane Wyman, as a classic female enabler and the ending offers nearly a magic cure based on sudden insight and self-will. The Director, Billy Wilder, anticipated the “disease concept” in the drunkenness and blackouts that follow the first drink. Wilder’s boldness resulted in a wave of similar films that worked the genre of social realism:
1947: “Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman” with Susan Hayward as a nightclub singer whose life and marriage and placed on hold while she invests in her husband’s career. Her life descends into alcoholism as his career takes off. Rather a gender reversal of “A Star is Born” with the primary character descending to a true alcoholic “bottom.”
1951: Night into Morning.” Small-town professor loses family in fire, becomes out-of-control and self-destructive (suicidal) alcoholic. Attribution is to the tragedy and not to a weakness or moral condition. Ray Milland gave another good performance.
1951: “Come Fill the Cup.” News reporter (James Cagney) is sacked for drinking. Later gets straight and hires 3 former alcoholics on his staff while still living with his friend Charley who is an alcoholic. Helps a young man through D.T.’s. Good film on the path of alcoholism. Also with Raymond Massey, Jackie Gleason and Gig Young. Film reflects A.A. precepts of permanent illness and the need to help others in order to stay sober.
1952: “Come Back Little Sheba.” Tremendous film depicting a Dr., active in A.A., who has blamed his drinking and diversion from his career on his long suffering wife (Shirley Booth). Doc gets jealous and abusive with his wife, ending up drunk and physically violent. Path breaking. Tremendous acting.
1952: “Something to Live For.” An actress is guided by an Alcoholics Anonymous member to control her alcoholism and her feelings of rejection Ray Milland in another film on debilitating alcoholism. An early reference to A.A. Along with “Come Back Little Sheba” of the same year.
1954: “The Country Girl.” Story about an alcoholic entertainer’s (Bing Crosby) attempt to overcome his addiction to booze, make a professional comeback, and save his relationship with his long suffering wife (Grace Kelly). This is remade for television in 1982 with Faye Dunaway and Dick Van Dyke.
1955: “The Man with the Golden Arm,” Tame by today’s standards, this was
an extraordinarily path breaking narrative about a musician’s (Frank Sinatra) addiction to heroin. Frankie Machine (Sinatra) is a drummer with a crippled wife. He recovers sweating it out by himself; a type of “heroic” individual effort.
1955: “I’ll Cry Tomorrow.” The life of Broadway’s Lillian Roth, who sank into alcoholism and then recovered:. Academy Award Nominations: 4, including Best Actress–Susan Hayward. Richard Conte is the caddish husband; Eddie Albert is the A.A. volunteer who lifts her up. Recovers in A.A.
1956: “The Bottom of the Bottle.” Story an two brothers, one an alcoholic and ex-offender who embarrasses his sober brother, and leaves for Mexico to escape. Great old time cast: Van Johnson, Joseph Cotton & Ruth Roman.
1957: “Monkey on My Back,” the story of welterweight boxing champion, Barney Ross (Cameron Mitchell) whose ring career is interrupted by W.W.II during which he contracted malaria, became addicted to morphine & hits a low bottom upon return. Graphically depicted, Ross later sued for defamation of character.
1958: “Voice in the Mirror.” An artist takes to drink after the death of his daughter. Resists interventions by wife and doctor. Finds the strength he needs to stay on the wagon with the help of a fellow alcoholic. Male AA-Like person. Great cast: Richard Egan, Walter Matthau, Julie London.
1958: “Too Much, Too Soon.” Dorothy Malone as Diana Barrymore who stays away from her alcoholic father during his lifetime only to turn to excessive drinking and numerous marriages and suicide attempts. Treatment center. A “moral” ending with Barrymore in recovery. This is an early portrayal of children and their experiences in alcoholic/drug abusing family settings.
1962: “The Days of Wine and Roses.” Academy award winner with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, articulating the addictive plunges into alcoholism and mutual, interpersonal risks of husband and wife use as one drags the other to the bottom. Brief introduction to AA by a visiting member.A lot of younger moviegoers remember the late Lemmon as the fussbucket companion to Walter Matthau in such fare as Grumpy Old Men and (maybe) The Odd Couple. Not so fast. Lemmon was an actor of laudable depth who could bring out every facet of the everyman — even the dark side. This is especially apparent in Days of Wine and Roses, as he and wife Lee Remick see their lives fall apart because of alcohol. The scene where a drunk Lemmon tries in vain to find a bottle of booze hidden in his father-in-law’s greenhouse is shattering proof of just how far the once-talented PR man has fallen. It’s also proof of a great actor in his prime
Steven Porter on “Leaving Las Vegas”: “And yes, the character does drink a lot. But either viewers have become soft due to the amount of romantic gush emanating from the Hollywood studios or they have no idea of how damaging an alcoholic lifestyle actually is – both to the individual and those around them.The film is hopelessly romantic. Sera, as the name suggests (seraphic), must have descended from on high, lost her wings, and somehow got caught up in prostitution. And the title begs the question, where has Ben left Las Vegas for? An early grave? Somewhere more fanciful, I expect. Maybe a heaven where alcoholics can drink to their heart’s content, without hangovers or withdrawal symptoms, and be tended by angels like Sera.
Alcoholism plays second fiddle to the romance. When Ben gets his nose busted in a bar room brawl, Sera can’t wait to kiss the blood off his face and go to bed with him. When Ben falls over, breaking a table and getting covered in shards of glass into the bargain, this seems no big deal. Sera has to help clean up the aftermath but compared with the ordeals she has to undergo as a prostitute, living with an alcoholic seems like a diversion or a minor inconvenience at most. The sexual abuse (nothing to do with Ben) in which Sera is slashed with a knife and anally raped provide the film with its truly disturbing scenes.
“But one of the best films about an alcoholic is one in which very little drinking takes place. The alcoholic is also called Joe but he lives in a radically different setting: inner-city Glasgow. ‘My Name is Joe’ has a love story at its heart too.
Joe (Peter Mullan) falls for community health worker Sarah, played by Louise Goodhall. Joe offers to decorate Sarah’s flat. They have a meal afterwards and Sarah notices that Joe doesn’t touch the wine. He explains that he’s a recovering alcoholic on the verge of completing a year of sobriety. MNIJ is a film about life after alcohol and in that sense it offers hope, although Joe has to face many difficulties in a deprived area where drug abuse, prostitution and gangland retribution are rife. Even a year on from his last drink, Joe still has a short fuse. He is a self-defined ‘jumpy bastard’, and coping with all the problems life can throw at him is far from easy when he can’t turn to alcohol for solace.
Despite the seriousness of the situations the characters find themselves in, there is none of the doomed martyrdom that hovers over ‘Leaving Las Vegas’. In MNIJ the damage alcohol can cause to individuals and their families is not hidden away, nor is it converted into some sort of heroic entertainment. Yet, MNIJ is rich in humour, much of it provided by the antics of Joe’s amateur football team. This provides an avenue for comedy which does not rely upon drunken antics for a cheap laugh.”