Theme Month! September 2020: Smoking, Drinking, Drugs

Almost everyone knows that American Prohibition launched during the silent era but the topic of temperance had been hashed out in the movies for decades before the law was passed. And as for smoking and drugs… well, there’s more to the story than you may realize.

This month, I’ll be covering silent movies that revolve around drinking, smoking and drugs. Some will be for, some will be against and all will be interesting in their own unique ways.

In the meantime, here are some older reviews to whet your appetite.


Of the three topics mentioned, smoking was the most ubiquitous and the least openly discussed. People smoked a lot but movies revolving around smoking are rarer.

The most famous one is probably the 1909 trick film Princess Nicotine; or, The Smoke Fairy from Vitagraph. It’s delightfully daft.

Germaine Dulac’s La Cigarette is more about the poison in the cigarette than the cigarette itself but it’s another splendid picture.

The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom is, again, more about the girl than the cigarettes but there is much tobacco-related amusement.


Alcohol was a hot topic with temperance being treated as next to godliness or anti-drink crusaders being portrayed as scolds. There were tragic tales of alcoholism and despair and regeneration or self-destruction.

Ten Nights in a Bar Room (1926) was produced by the Colored Players Film Corp. and is a rare chance to see Charles Gilpin in performance as a hardworking man who falls victim to alcoholism.

In the Moonshine Country (1918) is a mini documentary about the illicit alcohol trade. (Regional temperance laws predated Prohibition in many areas.)

The Burglary (1926) prominently features a moonshining in its plot. Finland was another country that had its own period of alcoholic prohibition.

The plot of The Mayor of Casterbridge (1921) is kicked off when the main character sells his wife to a sailor while under the influence of old-timey drink.


One of the biggest surprises for newcomers to silent film is probably seeing how frankly drugs were discussed. Some films were exploitative but there were also nuanced portrayals and even some drug comedies.

The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916) is quite famous for its rather, um, high concept storytelling.

The Devil’s Needle (1916) is the story of an artist who is introduced to intravenous drug use by his model and their subsequent battles to get clean. Norma Talmadge’s performance is impressive.

The Penalty (1920) does not center around drug abuse but a drug addicted character plays a significant role in the picture.

Whether the films are sensitive, trashy, humorous or dramatic, I hope you will join me in touring the vice movies of the silent era.


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  1. Overseas Visitor

    One could maybe clarify that even though Burglary was made during prohibition, its story is placed in 1870s, six years after the great famine of 1866-68. Moonshining was newly forbidden since all crops were needed for food. (Your review is correct, of course.)

  2. Shari Polikoff

    Just re-read your review of “The Devil’s Needle,” having just seen the film, and I was particularly interested in your comments about Norma Talmadge. I think that “It” quality, which she has, in common with Clara Bow, Greta Garbo, and Marilyn Monroe, is why when any of those ladies are on the screen, I can hardly look at anyone else in the same scene with them.
    I find myself totally captivated by every expression on their gorgeous faces.

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