Whisky & Culture

Hollywood's golden age: Whisky in the movies

Jefferson Chase looks at the special relationship between whisky and Hollywood
By Jefferson Chase
A lot of golden spirit has flowed across Hollywood’s silver screens in the 100-year-plus history of commercial motion pictures.Whisky has been played for laughs and for tears. It’s been knocked back by more gunfighters than you can count and drowned the sorrows of an equal number of tragic heroes waiting for redemption.Whisky has signified style and stagnation, youthful rebellion and corrupt power.Yet despite whisky’s perennial popularity as one of Hollywood’s favourite props, the relationship between the two is more broad than deep.True to American film’s understanding of itself as commerce first, art second, the first whiskey film was an advertisement.Dewar’s Scotch Whisky, made in 1897, two years after the public premier of film as an entertainment medium, is described in the International Movie Data Base as “bemused actors dressed in kilts performing a very poor impression of a highland fling.” Much the same could be said of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart.It would take another 30 years before American cinema would develop the level of sophistication that allowed Hollywood to dominate the world film market. Whisky first really hit the big time in the comedies of W.C. Fields.Limited in range and large of nose, Fields made his mark with a single role – that of the endearingly obnoxious drunk puncturing others’ pretensions with his loosened tongue.Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) was the title of the one of his most famous films, and it also seemed to be Field’s life’s motto. One of his best lines was: “I was in love with a beautiful blonde once, dear. She drove me to drink. That’s the one thing I’m indebted to her for.”In some 43 films over 30 years, Fields played a variety of professions – including, terrifyingly, a dentist – but the formula never varied. Take a Shakespearean fool, add copious amounts of alcohol and shake vigourously. The recipe worked equally well for Fields’ brassy co-star Mae West.The humorous drunk was also prominently featured in the film that defined the modern Western, John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). The first American auteur director, Ford pushed the limits of film technology and editing technique to tell the story of a motley crew of passengers riding
a mail coach through Injun country.On board were a sheriff, a crooked banker, a whore, a pregnant Southern belle, a genteel ex-Confederate officer, a prison escapee, a whisky distributor and the dipsomaniac Doc Boone, played to the comic hilt by Thomas Mitchell.The film was a huge hit. The exterior shots of Arizona were breathtaking, even in black and white, and moviegoers had never seen the likes of it’s central chase scene, in which the stagecoach tried to outrun a murderous band of Apaches on horseback.It also made a star of actor Marion Morrison, under the rather more manly pseudonym of John Wayne.A number of later Westerns would exploit whisky’s slapstick potential. Cat Ballou, a 1965 Jane Fonda vehicle, featured a wonderful Lee Marvin as a hired gunslinger too sloshed to shoot straight or even stay on his horse, and John Sturges’ The Hallelujah Trail (also 1965) reprised the
basic scenario with a covered wagon full of whisky that had to be delivered through dangerous Injun country.The scene that was to become the absolute cliché, however, was that of the gunfighter getting up his nerve for the impending duel by downing a shot in the saloon. The saloon scene – with or without the attendant brawl – became so standard that you feel kind of cheated when you
encounter the odd Western without one.Whisky’s role in the western has a factual basis in post-Civil-War American history.The opening up of the West by the railroads brought a flood of spirits to the frontier, and whisky was the principle, if not exclusive drink. In 1876, liquor taxes already generated one-half of the federal government’s income, whereas beer was not introduced to Dodge City until around
three years later.Nonetheless, the reality of the Old West was no doubt closer to Lee Marvin falling drunkenly from his steed than John Wayne blasting a bad guy at half a mile’s distance after a couple shots of extra-proof.The Thin Man series from 1934-1947 offered a far more urbane, if no more realistic, take on drinking.Starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as a husband-and-wife detective team, and based on works by Dashiell Hammett, the six Nick-and-Nora-Charles mysteries are among the funniest Hollywood movies ever. The first film introduces ex-detective Powell showing a crowded bar how to make the perfect Manhattan, whereupon heiress Loy orders six martinis in order to catch up with her soused spouse.Nick and Nora drank morning, noon and night, solving incomprehensible mysteries and having a stylish time in the process. The banter was first-rate and lightning-quick.Nick: “I got rid of all those reporters.”Nora: “What did you tell them?”Nick: “We’re out of Scotch.”Nora: “What a gruesome idea.”Sixty years on, the Thin Man pictures remain a must-see for whisky fans. As New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael wrote, “Our movies are the best proof that Americans are liveliest and freest when we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”Hollywood’s first good serious movie about alcohol came from its greatest comedy director, Billy Wilder, who summed up working with Marilyn Monroe on Some Like It Hot (1959) with the remark, “I knew we were in mid-flight, and there was a nut on the plane.”Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) was the unsentimental story of an unsuccessful, alcoholic writer (Ray Milland) on a binge. The movie opens and closes with an exterior shot of a whisky bottle hanging from a string out of Milland’s apartment window.“What you don’t understand,” Birnam says, “is that I’ve got to know it’s around. That I can have it if I need it. I can’t be cut off completely. That’s the devil. That’s what drives you crazy.”Birnam’s a nut, but one who plumbs the depths of social and physical humiliation during his besotted weekend, culminating in a harrowing attack of delirium tremens. Featuring a number of bar scenes shot through the distorting perspective of whisky bottles, The Lost Weekend puts Hollywood’s other attempts at tackling the topic – most recently Leaving Las Vegas – to shame.Another classic whisky-drinking figure from 1940s Hollywood was the hard-boiled private investigator.The classic film noir was The Maltese Falcon (1941), which combined the talents of three of Tinseltown’s most enthusiastic tipplers: writer Hammett, director John Huston and actor Humphey Bogart.The Maltese Falcon was both cool and unsettling; the hero Sam Spade, an ambiguous figure given as much to amoral brutality as to a sense of rectitude, surrounded by shadowy figures, all striving to get the upper hand while holding a lowball in the other.Particularly memorable is the scene in which Sydney Greenstreet relates to Bogey the history of the falcon, a supposedly priceless 16th-century art work, while waiting for the knock-out drops in the private dick’s whisky to take effect.Greenstreet: “I distrust a man who says ‘when.’ If he’s got to be careful not to drink too much, it’s because he’s not to be trusted when he does.”Whisky also had an important off-screen role as well.As Howard Koch, the co-screen-writer of Casablanca (1942) recounted, “Bogey would invite me into his dressing-room with his usual ‘relax and have a drink.’ We would talk and sometimes a genie popped out of the whisky bottle and off I’d go to develop the idea into a scene.”The result was arguably the most famous image in screen history, Rick standing at the piano with a glass in his hand pining for lost-love Ingrid Bergman. Contrary to legend, Rick doesn’t say “Play it again, Sam,” but Bogey’s dying words have been recorded as “I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis.”Director Huston, for his part, stayed true to the water of life, featuring it in classics from The African Queen to The Man Who Would Be King. The period now known as Hollywood’s Golden Age coincided, coincidentally or not, with the height of whiskey’s fashionability.“The whole world is drunk,” Dean Martin once quipped, “and we’re just the cocktail of the moment. Someday soon the world will wake up, down two aspirin with a glass of tomato juice, and wonder what the hell the fuss was all about.”One of the first signs that Hollywood might fall out of love with whisky came in Jailhouse Rock, starring Elvis Presley.In a key scene Elvis, an ex-con turned pop musician, meets up with an old prison buddy, a country musician seeking a spot on his television show.The King pointedly refuses the offer of a drink and tells his former musical mentor, “You’ve got to change
your style every six months or you’re through.” Hollywood and America’s drinking habits did
precisely that during the ‘60s and ‘70s; meanwhile, whisky became the signifier of an outmoded
generation. While it still featured in Sam Peckinpah’s Westerns and Roman Polanski’s excellent noir-revival Chinatown, whisky glasses appeared more and more in the hairy-knuckled hands of corrupt old-timers, against whom the youthful heroes rebelled.Emblematic of the shift was 1969’s Easy Rider.In it, Peter Fonda and director Dennis Hopper play pot-smoking, motorcycle-driving hippies on a
cross-country quest to sell some stolen cocaine.
Along the way, they pick up Jack Nicholson, playing a whisky-besotted Southern lawyer, as a hitch-hiker.Hollywood’s Golden Age was alternately chic and morally ambiguous; American films of the ‘60s and
‘70s were decadent and apocalyptic, depicting a society that appeared to be coming apart at the seams.After the Summer of Love, and with war raging in Vietnam, drugs better suited the times. Personified by
Nicholson in Easy Rider, whisky literally took a back seat to the intoxicants of a younger generation, for
whom Sam Spade was an old fart in a suit.Artistically, the apocalyptic American cinema of the ‘60s and ‘70s held its own against Hollywood’s Golden Age. The real sobering up came in the ‘80s.The decade’s biggest hit was Steven Spielberg’s E.T., acerbically praised by Billy Wilder as a “film that raked in millions, in which the lead actor was a dwarf in a rubber suit who probably cost a hundred bucks a day.”E.T.’s massive success signalled Hollywood’s move toward special effects, sentimentality, product placement and abstinence, yielding a torrent of exercise videos masquerading as entertainment: Flashdance, the Rocky sequels and the Rambo series.Alcohol had little place in the mass work-out, except as an empty cypher for the moral corruption to be subdued by the well-toned, Puritan-minded hero. A minor exception was Bull Durham (1988), a comedy starring Kevin Costner as a minor-league baseball player with a taste for Tennesee whiskey.The good thing about cycles, though, is that there’s always hope, and there have been signs of mental life recently, particularly on Hollywood’s fringes. The recent success of Lost In Translation, covered in Issue 37, offers some hope.Worthy of special attention are Joel and Ethan Cohen. Their mock-noir The Big Lebowski (1998), featured a dim-witted stoner who drank White Russians, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, re-set Homer’s Odyessy in the Depression-era South. Ironic, absurd and resolutely original, the Coen Brothers films recall the days when film scripts were written by writers, not focus-group-oriented committees. We’re still waiting for the first single-malt screwball comedy, but just as whisky has experienced a renaissance in the past decade, there is a chance that Hollywood might rediscover its spirit of witty dialogue and intelligent fun.