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Homage to Catatonia 

A history of drugs and the movies


Whoa, daddy.

—Robert Mitchum’s paean to the joys of marijuana, moments before his 1948 arrest

Chemistry: the science of the composition and mutability of substances — say, how a silver nitrate emulsion can create images on a light-sensitive surface. The processes that govern an organism, such as the inner workings of the brain. The kismet and mutual charisma between two lovers — especially onscreen — that defies empirical measure. Taken together, this nexus of alchemy and desire may represent nothing less than a secret history of the century of film: As the solitary artist, in pursuit of the ineffable, is refracted through the chemical diversions of the day, such diversions may bypass the artist entirely to create their own brand of chemical auteurism, which in turn comes to dominate the age.

Or maybe that’s just the drugs talking.

Booting Up

There are movies about drugs, and then there are movies in which drugs are the unspoken focus, either as influence or as allegory — the elephant in the living room that no one talks about, even if it’s pink, polka-dotted or leering madly. In the early years of Hollywood’s golden age, there was Frankenstein’s monster driven mad by the (presumably morphine) solution he is being administered, and daily morphine user Bela Lugosi as both the blood-addicted Dracula and Chandu the Magician — chandu being the Indian word for opium. There were the many Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde adaptations, an extension of novelist Robert Louis Stevenson’s firsthand knowledge of cocaine psychosis and drug-induced schizophrenia. And there were the Busby Berkeley musicals, which, drug-inspired or not, certainly seem to be the earliest flowerings of psychedelic cinema, what with their endless cavalcades of showgirl kaleidoscopes and Freudian headdresses. (“Say, what’s he smoking?” asks Ruby Keeler in Gold Diggers of 1933.) It’s little wonder that The Wizard of Oz and its saturated Technicolor, fairy-tale cast and treacherous poppies (not to mention its amphetamine-addled star) connected three decades later with a generation inured to rifts in the space-time continuum.

The birth of the cinema and the rise of recreational drugs occurred more or less in tandem in the United States, and the way we still view both is largely descended from that initial interplay. The Civil War had produced both widespread public exposure to commercial photography and a perpetual class of morphine addicts, who translated an anodyne for battlefield surgery into a civilian lifestyle. The rise of opium dens, the patent-medicine industry, and the promotion of heroin as a substitute for morphine in 1898 could well have remained known only in certain urban pockets for decades, except for the invention of the Kinetoscope and Vitagraph at roughly the same time. And as the movies themselves became a national addiction, one of the things moviegoers became addicted to was the exploitation of drug excesses.

Vilified as “vice films” in trade journals and excoriated for sowing the seeds of forbidden knowledge, these morality plays came with a trap door of staunch condemnation built in to get them past the censors. Typical was For His Son, directed by D.W. Griffith in 1912, in which a Coca-Cola surrogate laced with cocaine, called “Dopokoke,” visits poetic justice on its inventor’s son. These “dope operas” — tales of hubris, abandon and affliction with titles like Slaves of Morphine and The Devil’s Needle — were, for many, the first gleanings of what soon came to be known as the “American problem.” Public moralism inspired the Opium Exclusion Act of 1909, the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 and, eventually, the Volstead Act of 1919, which outlawed recreational drugs and alcohol and ushered in Prohibition, but it was a moralism in part reproduced by the movies themselves. And, as the messenger of record, Hollywood itself quickly became emblematic of the problem, as each new celebrity scandal carried its own drug angle.

The Highball Film

Although the newly instated Hays Code ensured that Hollywood too gave up the drug habit, the booze poured freely for years. During the early ’30s, alcohol was primarily glimpsed through the gangsters populating the likes of Little Caesar (1930) and The Public Enemy (1931). The hipster lingo and gangster patois, later seized upon by Billy Wilder and others, was largely the outgrowth of a bootlegger-and-speakeasy culture that initially led to the effervescent comedies of the mid- to late 1930s and early ’40s, redolent of champagne and superior dry martinis. In The Thin Man (1934), William Powell employs a line from the last page of the Dashiell Hammett novel — “This excitement has put us behind in our drinking” — to establish a gilded lifestyle of boozy raconteurism and unforced absurdity. As Nick and Nora Charles, Powell and Myrna Loy drank virtually nonstop through six films and still remained paragons of wit and sophistication. “How did you like Grant’s tomb?” he inquires by phone. “Very nice, dear,” she replies. “I’m having a copy made for you.”

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