It’s 1899. Absinthe is the rage in France and pioneering director Alice Guy has a bit of fun with the then-stylish beverage. And a bottle of seltzer. It’s proto-slapstick!
The Perils of the Green Fairy
In the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, a mysterious green beverage took the artists and bohemians of Europe by storm. Absinthe, a wormwood liqueur, certainly looked the part of a liquid muse. Nicknamed the Green Fairy, it resembles chartreuse in the bottle but turns milky once water is added. However, despite anything Oscar Wilde claimed, any hallucinations were the result of just plain overindulgence in alcohol and not the special powers of absinthe.
Its popularity with the working class clashed with the temperance movement, which was as much about classism as it was about alcohol. A couple of high profile crimes that involved (or were rumored to involve) absinthe proved to be the tipping point and the beverage was banned across Europe and the United States before and during the First World War. It did not become available again in the USA until 2007 (This was not due to a ban being lifted—absinthe had technically been legal for decades—but rather a clarification of murky existing laws.)
However, absinthe was still the beverage of choice for artists when Alice Guy’s one-minute comedy, Wonderful Absinthe, was released by Gaumont in 1899. Her main character is an artistic type (note the hair) who has come to a sidewalk café for a nice, cool drink of absinthe. Something goes wrong with the order and he reacts violently, much to the merriment of a woman and her children who are seated at the neighboring table. What gives?
Wonderful Absinthe’s plot seems to baffle many a viewer. They wonder if the main character drank out of the wrong bottle, if this was meant as a cautionary tale against the dangers of absinthe, if his violent temperament was basically a nineteenth century Reefer Madness. Nope, nope, nope.
Guy is actually employing one of the oldest gags in the book and, in any case, it is highly unlikely that she would have wanted to alienate the working class absinthe aficionados who also attended movies. Careful viewing reveals that the customer at the café did not drink out of the wrong bottle, he simply failed to dilute his absinthe.
Absinthe is not meant to be consumed as-is. It is meant to be diluted with about five parts water to one part absinthe and the resulting beverage is about as strong as a glass of wine. To further quell any bitterness, sugar is melted into the drink, usually a couple of cubes.
When someone ordered absinthe in the nineteenth century, they were provided with a dose of the alcohol in a large glass with sugar and a carafe of water to dilute it to their taste. The café customer in Wonderful Absinthe is absentminded, distracted by his newspaper and pours his water into his hat rather than his glass thus failing to dilute his drink or dissolve any sugar. This is what causes him to react to violently (remember, the stuff is pretty nasty undiluted) and attack the waiter. The waiter responds by squirting the customer with a bottle of seltzer. All in all, pretty basic slapstick stuff.
This is a case where we need to look at context to understand the film. “Context” is one of the most abused and misused words when dealing with film history, more’s the pity. It’s usually trotted out to silence complaints about racism in classic film (which is ridiculous as such content was indeed deemed racist and strenuously protested against when it was first released) but we’re using it properly here. We need to understand how the film’s audience (who would certainly have been familiar with absinthe even if they did not drink it themselves) would have reacted to the humor of the situation.
Reading the film is further hindered by the fact that movies of this period made scant use of closeups. A film made a bit later may have inserted a closeup of the café customer pouring the water into his hat but in this case, we are meant to pay attention to a particular part of the screen with little guidance from the director. This is challenging as we are distracted by the merriment of the family sitting at the next table, who see what is about to happen and cannot contain their glee. It’s very much like a stage play and can be a bit disconcerting for new viewers of early cinema.
Alice Guy’s absinthe gag lived on long after the beverage was banned. (I should mention that I am not saying she invented it, merely that this is an early film example of it.) In fact, the joke still shows up once in a while in films with the beverage usually switched to coffee. The character is distracted or absorbed in thought and spoons crazy amounts of sugar into their coffee. Or they spoon coffee into their sugar. Or they spoon sugar into gravy thinking its coffee. Whatever the setup, the result is always a nasty surprise when they try to take a drink.
The gag was even rewritten with kids in mind for the Our Gang short Mama’s Little Pirate (1934). Spanky overhears talk about pirate treasure and is so interested that he automatically spoons more and more sugar onto his oatmeal. Once he realizes that he has half the sugar bowl in his dish, he empties it onto his father’s breakfast. Dear old dad (also distracted by the pirate story) takes a bite and gets a mouthful of sickening sweetness, which causes him to choke. Okay, it’s not absinthe but you get the idea.
I was curious about absinthe and so I bought a bottle to test. (Lucid, which I bought at BevMo, in case you were wondering. And, yes, I did obtain an absinthe spoon for the purpose. Sugar cubes or chunks are essential as well.) I tend to prefer simple, classic drinks: whisky and water, gin and tonic, vodka with lemon, that sort of thing. My favorite drink is an icy cold, very dirty gin martini with extra olives, if that gives you an idea of my taste. Try to serve me an appletini at your peril and don’t even utter the phrase “vodka martini” in my presence. (It’s actually called a kangaroo.)
As an absinthe beginner, I opted for three sugar cubes (I don’t normally like sweet drinks) and a five-to-one ratio of water to alcohol with one ounce of absinthe in the glass. I used a measuring glass to assure perfect proportions. I didn’t quite perfect melting all the sugar in one pour but I understand that requires practice. The result is a refreshing beverage with a strong licorice flavor. Not bad at all. Quite good, as a matter of fact. Well worth trying, especially for fans of black licorice. (Obviously, obey all drinking laws in your neck of the woods and be a responsible consumer.)
And, no, I did not see any fairies, green or otherwise. Like I said before, it has been pretty conclusively proven that absinthe’s hallucinogenic reputation is all placebo. However, I did enjoy the process of making the drink and the magical transformation from yellow (absinthe comes in assorted colors) to a soft greenish white. I derive similar enjoyment from making proper tea in a pretty pot with fine china cups. Old world sophistication is still irresistible.
As for the film, Wonderful Absinthe is a charming example of early slapstick but it is often misread by viewers who do not understand the context of Alice Guy’s Belle Époque setting. Absinthe’s illicit reputation has led many to view it through the lens of modern anti-drug films but Guy’s intent was nothing of the sort. However, there is still much to enjoy in this little film and I hope you will check it out.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD as part of Kino’s excellent Gaumont Treasures Volume One set, which I highly recommend. (Both volumes are splendid.)