Absinthe in the Silent Film Era

Almost from the very outset, motion picture producers found a lucrative niche producing films with an anti-alcohol message. As the much demonized focus of the French temperance movement, absinthe was soon given a starring role as villain-in-chief.

La Bonne Absinthe – 1899

In 1899 Alice Guy directed the short film La Bonne Absinthe. A crude piece just a minute long, this is nonetheless the earliest known reference to absinthe in film, Long thought lost, this tiny flickering fragment from the dawn of film history – just 56 seconds long – is the earliest filmed version of an absinthe being prepared and drunk. It tells a short, comical story: a man walks into a café, orders an absinthe, the waiter brings a bottle and adds a large dose to his glass, the man adds water from a carafe in an absent minded way while reading his newspaper, not realising that he’s missing the glass entirely. Without looking he takes a deep drink, and almost chokes on the undiluted alcohol. In a rage he starts attacking the waiter with his cane. The waiter chases him away with a soda syphon, to the great amusement of the other onlookers.

Produced by the Gaumont Film Company.
Directed by Alice Guy.

Les victimes de l’alcoolisme – 1902

In the first decade of the 20th century a number of anti-alcohol films were released in France, including Les Victimes de l’alcoolisme (1902), and, most importantly, Gérard Bourgeois’ marvellously melodramatic Les Victimes de l’alcool (1911), a ground breaking film in its day, and a huge commercial success.

Loosely based on Zola’s L’Assommoir, Les Victimes de l’Alcoolisme was the first attempt by Ferdinand Zecca (1864-1947) and the newly formed Pathé company to exploit the burgeoning demand for anti-absinthe and anti-alcohol propaganda. Filmed in 1901 and released the following year, it was not a commercial success – both because theatres with the necessary projection apparatus were still a rarity, and because the film is relatively primitive in conception and execution.

Lasting just 3 minute and 39 seconds, Les Victimes de l’Alcoolisme follows the same broad format as temperance tracts such as Histoire d’une Bouteille: the first scenes show contented family life, with the husband surrounded by an adoring wife and happy children. He’s then led astray by disreputable friends, who give him the fatal first glass of alcohol. He’s shown drinking in a bar with a sign saying “Absinthe 15 cents.” hanging on the neck of the in-house alambic. The next scene shows his family now destitute and living in a bare garret – he arrives home and collapses in an alcoholic fit. As always with these cautionary tales, the last scene is set in the asylum, where the poor soul succumbs to delirium tremens, and dies in great distress.

Produced by Pathé.
Directed by Ferdinand Zecca.

Les victimes de l’alcoolisme – 1911

Victimes de l’Alcoolisme and shows the giant leap made by the motion picture industry in the first decade of the 20th century. While the earlier film is purely an historical curiosity, this 1911 remake is an accomplished work of art, and holds our attention from beginning to end. Filmed entirely in the Pathé studios, it was a major undertaking, with a print more than a 1000m long, an exceptional length for the era (the film runs for 26 minutes and 17 seconds). Enthusiastically promoted by the temperance movement, it was a huge success for Pathé.

Charles Pathé sent a copy of the film to the renowned scientist and sponsor of anti-alcohol legislation, Dr. Legrain. He enthusiastically reviewed the films as follows: “C’est l’expression meme de la vie et de la vérité et, en cette qualité, elle contribuera grandement à l’édification du grand public sur la grave problème de l’alcoolisme que vous nous aidez à combattre d’une façon très pittoresque et très émouvante.”

The journal of the Ligue Nationale contre l’Alcoolisme, L’Etoile Bleue, informed its readers in June 1911:

“La Maison Pathé Frères vient d’éditer un film documentaire et émouvant sous ce titre significatif Les Victimes de l’alcool. Cette scène causera certainement dans les milieux populaires une émotion considerable et aidera dans une large mesure notre propaganda. (…)Puissante leçon sociale Les Victimes de l’alcool sont en outré un drame admirablement agencé, aux situations poignantes, au dénouement tragique. La Maison Pathé Frères a fait autour de ce film émouvant une publicité considerable don’t nous aimons à croire que profitera notre action. C’est en tous cas un devoir pour tous nos amis d’aller voir et de faire voir Les Victimes de l’alcool.”

While the plot of the film follows the same outline as its 1902 predecessor, the story is fleshed out in far more detail, and there are several important changes – most significantly, the protagonist is a member of the petite bourgeoisie, not a working man – something that added significantly to the powerful impact of the film.
The leading man, Jacques Normand, gives a very fine performance, and at the end we feel genuine pity at his tragic downfall. In his memoirs, written in 1923, he writes of the irony of performing the final delirium tremens scene having drunk, as was his habit – and to the amazement of the film crew, nothing more than a few bottles of Vichy water!

Produced by Pathé.
Directed by Ferdinand Zecca.

Scenes from Gérard Bourgeois’ 1911 “Les Victimes de l’Alcool”, showing the gradual downfall of the hero.

 

 

Absinthe – 1913

On 7th January 1913, the Gem Motion Picture Company released a one reel film called Absinthe, starring Glen White and Sadie Weston (as Miss Weston). Although the film was released in standard 35mm spherical 1.37:1 format, only a single imperfect 16mm print produced for the Dutch market survives today. An advertising poster for the film is in the collection of the Library of Congress.
In 1914 Gem was absorbed into the rapidly expanding Universal empire, by which time Universal had released their own film called Absinthe, a much more ambitious four reel version directed by Herbert Brenon and starring King Baggot. It played nationwide to packed houses and turn-away crowds; many exhibitors upped the admission price from their usual 5 cents, to ten. Filmed in Paris, it was purchased in 1916 by Baggot from Universal and re-released in 1917 in a five reel version with added material pertinent to World War 1.
Unfortunately though no print of Universal’s Absinthe has survived, leaving Gem’s earlier version as apparently the only surviving US-made absinthe-related motion picture from the pre-ban era, and one of the very few contemporary filmed versions of an absinthe being prepared and drunk.

The film is complete, just under 12 minutes long, and in overall excellent condition considering its age.

Produced by the Gem Motion Picture Company.

The Demon Drink.

The artist, Philips, meets a beautiful model.

Four absinthes please.

Philips falls in love with the model.

Drinking with his friends.

A month later they are engaged.

Look at the ring..

Some time later..

Drinking yet again.

Prove to me that your love for me is greater than your addiction to absinthe.

No…. then take your ring back!

She’s worried about his mental state and goes to visit him.

Where is he?

Alone in his apartment he’s lost in an absinthe reverie.

Asleep, he dreams of an absinthe-soaked future.

Drinking alone….

Confrontation and rejection…

Expelled from the art academy.

No drunks wanted here!

Desperate for a drink.

Rejected by former friends.

A furious struggle….

Murder!!!

He stumbles distraught into a church.

Begs the virgin for deliverance.

He awakes – it was all a dream but he knows what he must do…

His fiancee enters as he empties his absinthe glass.

Joy all around.

They throw the absinthe bottle in the river.

and watch it float away……….