One of the things that classic film does is make us aware of the prevailing attitudes and beliefs of people in history, ranging from the admirable to the absurd to the downright prejudice. I remember several years ago when I taught a U.S. History course to undergraduates in Texas. One of our lectures focused on the Civil War and post-Civil War era, including the status of African Americans and racism at the time. As part of our lecture, we watched a clip from the D. W. Griffith film Birth Of A Nation (1915). In this clip, Southern virtue was at stake and who should come riding in to save the day? None other than the Klu Klux Klan. It was well known that Griffith, a Southerner and son of a Civil War veteran, had portrayed the KKK not as the monstrous racists that most of us think of them today but as heroes. This shocked my young students who had been raised with entirely different values. They couldn’t understand how such a film could have become so popular in its time.
In this same way, I came across the ironies of how alcohol and drug addiction were treated in film while I was researching my blog post on silent film star Alma Rubens. In that post, I talked a little bit about the “cocaine comedies” of the silent film era. Both drug and alcohol addiction were indeed seen as targets for comedy in the silent film era and Pre-Code Hollywood but as these began to become serious issues in American society after World War II, Hollywood likewise changed its tone and brought out some very potent films that took substance abuse in the serious way that we take it today.
It might be hard to believe now, but addiction was treated as something that filmmakers exploited for comic purposes in the silent era and even into the 1930’s. In addition to the “cocaine comedies”, the character of the drunk was always good for comic relief in silent films. For example, in the Charlie Chaplin film City Lights (1931), drunkenness is used to great comic effect as Chaplin’s Little Tramp becomes the great friend of a character dubbed as An Eccentric Millionaire (Harry Myers) when he saves him from suicide one night. The millionaire invites him into his home and lavishes him with champagne parties, warm clothes, warm food, and a warm bed. The catch is that all this generosity comes only when the millionaire is drunk. Once he is sober, he not only forgets who the tramp is but rejects him as any high society man would.
To be sure, there were also films in the Pre-Code Era that showed drug and alcohol addiction for what they were – tragic social issues. Many of these films connected alcoholics and drug addicts (especially the latter) with immoral and criminal behavior. For example, the 1932 film Three On A Match shows the decline of Vivian Revere (Ann Dvorak) once she leaves her stable husband in search of a more exciting life and ends up involved in alcohol and drug addiction as she shacks up with a gambler Michael Loftus (Lyle Talbot), going as far as to place her infant son in a filthy and vice-infested environment and neglecting his basic needs. In the 1933 horror classic Mystery Of The Wax Museum, a drug addicted character is forced to reveal information that leads to the destruction of the wax museum and its creator (Lionel Atwill) when the police deprive him of his drug “fix”.
In Reefer Madness, one of the consequences of teenagers who get high on marijuana is that a young woman ends up getting raped, as shown in the scene above.
But by the end of the 1930’s, Hollywood was starting to make an attempt at viewing substance abuse seriously, especially when it came to young people. A string of films made during this time were aimed at teenagers and college students and their parents that outlined the dangers of vice, including topics such as teenage pregnancy, unsafe sex, and, in Reefer Madness (1936 or 1938), marijuana addiction. The film presents a cautionary tale of the consequences that teenagers expose themselves to when they get addicted to drugs, including rape and murder. These films were quite obviously propaganda in their preaching tone but they did begin to make the country aware that substance abuse was a growing problem among the young in particular.
But it wasn’t until the 1950’s where the attitude towards alcohol and drug addiction really began to change. Prior to that time, it seemed as if Hollywood saw substance abuse as a moral issue, much like the general public. But at this time, there became more awareness that alcohol and drug abuse were not just about what happened on the outside (I.e., crime, vice) but also what happened on the inside (the destruction of the addict’s life and psyche). In addition, abuse was put in the contexts of the addict’s life as a way of understanding how one could become an addict. One film that illustrates these points is the Susan Hayward film I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955). The film is a biopic of the rise and fall (and subsequent recovery) of Broadway and Hollywood star Lillian Roth (played by Hayward) due to her alcohol addiction. The film shows us that Roth’s addiction didn’t come from a moral flaw but from a difficult background, including a “stage mom” (played by Jo Van Fleet) who pushed her to perform at an early age, the loss of her one true love, and her involvement with a very abusive man. Similarly, the film Days Of Wine And Roses (1962) shows the way in which Joe Clay (Jack Lemmon) falls prey to alcoholism as a result of a false sense of self set up by his sleazy job as a press agent and how he drags down his wife Kirsten Arensen Clay (Lee Remick) with him, turning her from a clean-cut young woman who never touched a drop of alcohol into a neglectful mother who sets their apartment on fire from a careless cigarette during one of her alcoholic binges.
Because of this growing awareness that nurture has as much, if not more, to do with substance abuse than nurture, it’s not surprising that in both of these films, Alcoholics Anonymous plays an important role in helping the main characters get back on their feet. Although AlAnon began with fairly religious intents (as the link below discusses) in the late 1930’s, both these films focus on the idea that an addict must first admit he/she is an addict and explore the reasons why he/she is an addict as well as seek support and guidance from others if he/she wishes to clean up their lives. So addiction here isn’t about someone’s lack of virtue but about their circumstances and environment and, as such, there is a way to manage their addiction through support and understanding.
I think that watching the way in which substance abuse was treated as jest in early films still appalls many of us, but there is one thing to remember. A writer on one of my historical novel Facebook pages recently expressed her disdain for a movement in her country to change the names of great works of art that had non-PC terms in them, such as “Indian” instead of “Native American”. She pointed out that, as embarrassing and unfair as these terms might be, we still need to keep them, not just out of respect for the artist who named them, but also as a reminder of what we need to teach our children about what not to do or say. I tend to agree with this, as we can’t educate others about what is right and what is wrong unless we have examples of what was wrong in the past.
http://dangerousminds.net/comments/cocaine_comedy_from_1916 (Article about “cocaine” comedies in the silent era)
http://listverse.com/2008/11/27/10-best-movies-about-substance-abuse/ (a list of top films about substance abuse, including some classics)
http://www.dickb.com/index.html ( a history of Alcoholics Anonymous)
https://www.na.org/?ID=PR-index (history of Narcotics Anonymous)