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The Portrayal of Alcoholism in Classic Films

Updated on January 22, 2016
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Darla Sue Dollman, B.A., M.F.A., is a freelance writer with 38 years combined experience as a journalist, photographer, and editor.

Photo by D.S. Dollman
Photo by D.S. Dollman | Source

According to Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde, "Life imitates art far more than art imitates life." Perhaps this was true for Oscar Wilde, but the connection between films and the disease of alcoholism would seem to prove otherwise, that the reality of the alcoholic's life, and the treatments available for those who struggled with alcohol addiction, is reflected in the art of the times.

Classic Film Star Mary Pickford with Camera

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Beginnings of Social Awareness

The evolution of the American film industry reflect an awakening of social awareness to the problems of alcoholism. Early films on the American scene in the 1900s depicted political and historical events, including Prohibition. The1920s Prohibition, aimed at reducing alcohol consumption stimulated the business connections of the criminal element involved in the production and sale of alcohol, and crime films, such as 1927's Underworld and the 1931 film City Streets, became popular. In the 1930s, Americans resumed their pre-prohibition consumption of alcohol, but with a changed perception of alcohol addiction, which was viewed as a weakness, or personality flaw, largely due to its connections to organized crime.

Alcoholism was treated in hospitals with a combination of Barbituates and Belladonna, known as "purge and puke," according to Alcoholics Anonymous, and patients were often committed to asylums. The public perception of alcoholism during these times, as well as recommended treatments, is also reflected in classic films.

Constance Bennett

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What Price Hollywood?

The plot for the 1932 drama What Price Hollywood? is a classic representation of the spectacular fall of Hollywood professionals due to alcohol addiction. Ironically, it was released one year before President Franklin Roosevelt brought an end to Prohibition.

Waitress Mary Evans (Constance Bennett) serves film director Maximillian Carey (Lowell Sherman), who invites her to a movie premiere. The two end up in Carey's bed. Evans may be naive, but she is also stubborn, and is eventually granted the screen test Carey promised during his seduction.

Evans is offered a contract and soon achieves stardom. Carey's career declines. He becomes increasingly dependent on alcohol, and in predictable alcoholic stages, his addiction interferes with his relationship with Evans and affects her career. Carey eventually commits suicide.

It is speculated that What Price Hollywood? and the--too close for comfort--film A Star is Born were based on the tragic endings of many Hollywood professionals. In fact, according to a TVGuide.com review, the original title of the film was The Truth About Hollywood. The script, written by Adela Rogers St. Johns, was based on the tragic alcoholic demise of many Hollywood greats, including film producer John McCormick, director Tom Forman, and actor John Barrymore.

Clara Bow was considered for the starring role in What Price Hollywood? However, her own struggles with alcoholism altered her physical appearance so drastically that the role was passed on to Bennett. The film was nominated for Best Writing, Original Story at the Academy Awards.

Janet Gaynor in A Star is Born

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A Star is Born

The 1937 version of A Star Is Born, is nearly identical in plot to What Price Hollywood? In A Star is Born, Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) is a small town girl who arrives in Hollywood with big dreams. She changes her name to Vicky Lester. While serving as a waitress at a party, Lester meets the much older alcoholic actor Norman Maine (Frederic March). Maine uses his connections to help his young lover achieve success while his own career slowly fades.

As was common in the treatment of alcoholism in the thirties, Maine spends time in a sanitarium trying to recover from the insidious disease. The treatment fails. He then follows a nearly identical path to that of Maximillian Carey in What Price Hollywood? The disease slowly destroys his life, his relationship with Lester, and damages her career. He follows this path to the end of the film when he also commits suicide to protect the career of his young love.

A Star is Born was nominated for eight Oscars and received the Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Story, which is surprising considering its close resemblance to What Price Hollywood?.

Judy Garland in A Star is Born

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Remakes of A Star is Born: Minor Variations on the Theme of Alcoholism

A Star Is Born was remade in 1954 with a slightly different plot. This time, Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland) rescues the intoxicated Norman Maine (James Mason) from an embarrassing moment at a social function.

This version of A Star is Born is brutally honest about the devastating effects of alcohol on all aspects of life, particularly when Blodgett steps up to receive her Academy Award and the intoxicated Maine stumbles up beside her, swings his arm wildly and slaps her across the face. Later, in a desperate attempt to prevent his lover from suffering further from his alcoholic self-destruction, Maine walks into the ocean and drowns.

A Star Is Born must have seemed like a mirror to Garland who started a tempestuous affair with Mason during filming and struggled with alcoholism for much of her adult life.

In 1976, A Star Is Born was remade once more with Barbara Streisand as Esther Hoffman and Kris Kristofferson as John Norman Howard. In this version--the highest grossing of the three released thus far--Streisand plays (of course) a singer, and Kristofferson, a singer/songwriter, whose career is declining due to the same alcohol-induced outrageous behavior that first made him famous.

This version of A Star is Born is unique in many ways, including the increased focus on how Kristofferson's (Howard) bad boy rock star career defines his identity for most of his adult life. As Howard grows older, alcohol becomes a mask that he hides behind to mourn his loss of self.

A Star is Born with Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson

Best Portrayal of the Alcoholism Disease

In your opinion, which of these films best portrays the depth of the crisis for those who suffer from the disease of alcoholism?

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A Slight Change of Attitude: Bill Wilson and Alcoholics Anonymous

Religious organizations with a focus on assisting with alcohol addiction were formed early in the century. These organizations became more prominent in the U.S. post-prohibition and aided in the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous, which was given its boost in popularity with the success story of Bill Wilson.

Wilson failed to graduate from law school because he was too drunk to pick up his diploma and destroyed his Wall Street career through alcohol abuse, but eventually succeeded in beating his addiction using his faith in a higher power.

Wilson's story, told in the 1935 book Alcoholics Anonymous, has many similarities to the widely-publicized stories of Hollywood actors who ruined their careers and lost their lives to the insidious affects of alcohol. Many classic films reflect the attitudes and approved treatments of alcoholism discussed in the book.

Ray Milland

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The Lost Weekend

The 1945 classic The Lost Weekend stars Ray Milland as Don Birman, a character whose story resembles that of Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson. Birman is a struggling writer, a man who has the loving support of family and friends who believe he is capable of great achievements with his writing skills, but Birman is fearful of success and turns to alcohol as an escape.

Birman's life spirals downward quickly with his alcohol abuse and his desperation is painful to watch. As the film begins, Birman and his brother, Wick (Phillip Terry), are packing for a short, weekend vacation when Birman's girlfriend, Helen (Jane Wyman), arrives with tickets to a Carnegie Hall performance. Birman convinces his brother and girlfriend to attend the concert without him in a classic ploy to distract his caretakers so he can search for alcohol. Wick is suspicious of his brother's excuses. He searches the apartment and finds a secret stash of whiskey, pours the alcohol down the sink, then leaves with Helen.

Birman is in an alcoholic panic, but when the maid arrives, he discovers his brother has hidden money in a sugar bowl and uses the money to support a two-day drinking binge. The money does not last long. At one point, Birman is so desperate for alcohol he steals a woman's purse and even tries to pawn his typewriter to feed his addiction. Eventually, Birman purchases a gun. Helen discovers the purchase, suspects he intends to commit suicide, and convinces Birman to write the story of his lost weekend, instead.

The Lost Weekend uses many classic film noir cinematic techniques to enable the viewing audience to share the helpless, hopeless feelings of alcoholics. It starts with the opening scene, which sets the tone of the film with a pan of the Manhattan skyline providing a feeling of never-ending repetition that reflects the actions of those who suffer from this disease. The focus then moves in on one window with a bottle of whiskey tied to the window crank and dangling outside--Birman's stash, revealing that someone who lives behind the window is trying to hide from both the outside world and the contents of the bottle.

The Lost Weekend was received favorably by the critics with its daring portrayal of the severity of the alcoholic's disease. The film received seven Oscar nominations and won four well-earned Academy Awards including: Best Actor in a Leading Role for Ray Milland; Best Director for the incomparable Billy Wilder; Best Picture; and Best Writing/Screenplay, which was shared by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett.

The Lost Weekend

Nancy Davis-Reagen

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Night Into Morning

In 1951, Ray Milland once again portrayed a man on an alcoholic downward spiral as Philip Ainley in Night Into Morning. Ainley is an English Professor at University of California, Berkeley who uses alcohol to avoid facing the loss of his wife and son when they die in an explosion in their family home. There are a few brief moments in the film when Ainley clearly contemplates suicide, such as when he leans over the ledge of a tower on campus, but is called back to reality by the janitor who tells Ainley he is sorry for his loss.

The English Department's secretary, Katherine (Nancy Davis-Reagen), and an Associate Professor, Tom Lawry (John Hodiak), try to rescue Ainley from his self-destructive path, but Lawry soon realizes their efforts are in vain. Eventually, Ainely realizes he has hit the proverbial rock bottom in alcoholism and must stop drinking in order to save his own life.

Though it is surprising that Milland would agree to do a film so close in subject matter to the blockbuster The Lost Weekend, the two films are actually distinctly different. Rather than focusing on the main character's isolation, Night Into Morning has a large cast of characters who attempt to interact with Ainley increasing the tension.

Ainley experiences a loss of such intensity that the audience is forced to feel his pain. He has many opportunities to pull himself out of this downward spiral and respond to those round him, but the temptation to hide from the world through alcohol abuse is too great. His refusal to experience grief keeps him stuck in the denial stage of loss. The alcoholism disease is portrayed with such precise realism in this film that the disease could be included on the list of characters.

Destroying the Stereotype of "The Drunk"

Each of these films shows how alcohol is used as a panacea that causes a downward spiral in the lives of intelligent professionals, thereby attacking the stereotype of the "drunk" as a lazy and irresponsible bum with the use of film to make a social statement. Unfortunately, that stereotype still exists to this day as mainstream society refuses to recognize alcoholism as an insidious, deadly disease with many experimental treatments, but no cure.

Sources:

  • A Star is Born. 1937Dir. William A. Welman. Perf. Janet Gaynor, Frederic March, Adolphe Menjou. Selznick International Pictures. Running Time: 111 min.
  • A Star is Born. Dir. George Cukor. Perf. Judy Garland, James Mason, Warner Bros. 1954. Running Time: 181 min.
  • A Star is Born. Dir. Frank Pierson. Perf. Kris Kristofferson, Barbara Streisand, Barwood Films. 1974. Running Time: 129 min.
  • Night Into Morning. 1951. Dir. Fletcher Markle. Perf. Ray Milland, Nancy Davis-Reagan. John Hodiak. Metro Goldwyn Mayor. Running Time: 86 min.
  • The Lost Weekend. 1945. Dir.Billy Wilder. Perf. Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Philip Terry. Paramount Pictures. Running time: 101 min.

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    • DS Dollman profile image
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      Darla Sue Dollman 20 months ago from Greeley, Colorado

      Thank you! I'm looking forward to your comments!

    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 20 months ago

      Yep. And issues regarding race, premarital sex and pregnancy, and so on, were also addressed here and there. Well, I definitely look forward to reading more in the series!

    • DS Dollman profile image
      Author

      Darla Sue Dollman 20 months ago from Greeley, Colorado

      I've followed this topic for years and plan to make this into a series . It is surprising how Hollywood responded to both alcoholism and drug addiction, and not. There were many actors dying from alcoholism--Gail Russell of course comes to mind because I just posted an article about her--and surprisingly, the problem was not ignored by the studios. The one that surprised me the most was Judy Garland who struggled with addiction issues most of her adult life, but starred in an award-winning film about a woman whose career was almost destroyed by her codependent relationship with an alcoholic. I often wonder if she recognized the irony. Thanks for reading!

    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 20 months ago

      Very interesting overview of this topic. I grew up watching classic films and even took an Art of Film course in college, and was unfamiliar with most of these. People often criticize the first half of the 20th century as living in La La Land and a pretense of an ideal life. Yes, there are those representations. But, classic film and literature certainly addressed serious issues often. Sometimes I think these modern social critics really lack perception of the thing they are criticizing ;-)