But after years of Depression and with the imminent onset of World War II, serial drunkenness wasn’t quite so charming. “Oh, fine, fine,” says Thomas Mitchell playing a Eugene O’Neill type deep in his cups in Ben Hecht’s Angels Over Broadway(1940), moments after an unseen waiter has brought him a fresh scotch. “I no longer have to order drinks, I just attract them. ‘He shall have liquor wherever he goes.’” Spurred by writers whose primary solace was the bottle, noir re-fashioned alcohol as a bottomless well of escape and cautionary tales, much as illicit drugs had been for a generation earlier.
Ray Milland’s alcoholic novelist in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945), plagued by a disorienting theremin score and bleeding bat-rat creatures living in the wall, was loosely patterned after F. Scott Fitzgerald, America’s pre-eminent fallen writer (through source novelist Charles Jackson and especially Wilder’s co-scripter, Charles Brackett, who knew Fitzgerald socially). Gone suddenly were Nick Charles and the antic fops of screwball comedy, and in their place was Bogart, first glimpsed in Casablanca as a pair of hands around a rocks glass. As bartender Sheldon Leonard states in the darkest part of It’s a Wonderful Life, “We serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast, and we don’t need any characters around to give the joint atmosphere.”
The Highball Film made a brief resurgence with the Frank Sinatra Rat Pack movies of the early ’60s, which almost always had their table reservations built into the title: Sergeants 3, 4 for Texas, Robin and the Seven Hoods, and especially Ocean’s Eleven. Filmed during the day while Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop performed their legendary nightly run at the Las Vegas Sands Hotel, the film — from its flimsy caper plot to its boozy swagger and mumbled dialogue that seems thought up before each take, to the uncredited cameos by Shirley MacLaine, Pinky Lee, restaurateur Nicky Blair, jazz great Red Norvo and a snake dancer named Shiva — is closer to a catered cocktail party or a floating craps game than to a real movie. It’s as if the actors can’t wait to get off-camera and back to the party taking place a cool 180 degrees behind the fourth wall.
By the ’60s proper, Hollywood was split down the middle, with one half invested in increasingly superfluous extravaganzas, praying for another Sound of Music (1965), and the other half shin-deep in the phosphorescent surf, embracing the sea change around it. There is no other explanation on the part of the studios for such monstrosities as Casino Royale (1967) — filled with women in miniskirts, endless hedonism and calcified hipsters like John Huston — than that it tried to approximate the limitless sensorium and wandering spectacle that everyday bohemian life had become. Yet no amount of split screens, or rack focuses, or lazy-eye zooms, or hand-held jump cuts, or REM-speed editing could create a workable simulacrum of this new and, to many, mystifying point of view. You were either on the bus or you weren’t.
Although there was an audience for lysergic spectacles like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo or even Disney’s 30-year-old Fantasia, industry mandarins were powerless to explain why. The unspoken, unifying bond between these films and their audience was LSD, the first drug to which the new generation could lay exclusive claim, making it all the more imperative as subject matter. The inevitable wave of LSD films ranged from teens-in-peril warnings like The People Next Door (or, later, Go Ask Alice), to exploitation come-ons like Alice in Acidland and how-to manuals like Roger Corman’s The Trip, to fashion make-overs (both sartorial and sexual) like Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance. Whatever else, they were all public-service announcements for a burgeoning lifestyle.
And, as always, it was the old guard who proved the most rigid in their conversions. As far back as 1955, Otto Preminger had broken the Production Code with The Man With the Golden Arm, releasing it without a Hays Office Seal of Approval. Based on a Nelson Algren novel, it featured Frank Sinatra, working overtime to prove that his From Here to Eternity comeback was no fluke, as musician-junkie Frankie Machine. Despite its status as the first of the ’50s heroin melodramas (followed by Monkey on My Back, about fighter Barney Ross, and A Hatful of Rain, about returning Korean War vets), The Man With the Golden Arm clearly remained a booze film, full of big moments, grandiose gestures and the exquisite pain of male masochism.
Given Preminger’s predilection for challenging authority (he had broken the color line with Carmen Jones and would help shatter the blacklist with Exodus), it makes sense that of all of Hollywood’s classical autocrats, Preminger should be the one to march into uncharted terrain once a freestanding drug culture existed in earnest. Still, Skidoo, or LSD I Love You (1968), released by Paramount, remains one of the most blinkered cultural documents of an already disintegrating age. Jackie Gleason plays a hit-man convict who is accidentally dosed with a tab of acid. In his final role, Groucho Marx plays a gangster named “God,” while Carol Channing, dressed in a sunshine-yellow Rudi Gernreich pantsuit, leads a phalanx of body-painted hippies across San Francisco Bay. Ostensibly a prison comedy, the film ends with everyone aloft in a hot-air balloon as the final credits are sung by composer Harry Nilsson — down to “Copyright M-C-M-L-X-V-I-I-I.” For those who missed the point, the trailer starred Timothy Leary.