The green devil absinthe is the target of this moral panic picture from Universal. When a young artist partakes of the beverage too freely, he stands in danger of losing his fiancée, his career and his life.
Home Media Availability: Stream courtesy of EYE.
Kick the green fairy to the curb!
Absinthe has an interesting place in the world of moral panic pictures. It is an alcoholic beverage sold in concentrate at a whopping 75% alcohol per volume in some cases and was designed to be highly diluted with water before being consumed. It was widely consumed across the classes but its reputation as the drink of artists provided the inspiration for this 1913 Universal drug panic picture.
I use “drug” deliberately because absinthe has never been treated like a mere aperitif. The belief that the beverage was hallucinogenic drove both its popularity and, ultimately, led to it being widely banned. In short, absinthe was an alcoholic beverage that politicians and pop culture treated as a drug.
We last visited absinthe in a review of an 1899 Alice Guy comedy called Wonderful Absinthe. That film has sometimes been mistaken for an anti-absinthe screed but it clearly was just having a bit of fun with absinthe culture in France. Absinthe, on the other hand, came on the heels of the American ban on the importation of the stuff and played the exploitation and alarm angle for all it was worth. This one-reeler was likely produced very quickly indeed.
The film is set in a French art studio. One of the artists (Glen White) is courting the model (Sadie Weston). However, he has a bad habit that she does not know about. You see… after a long day of painting, the artists go to a sidewalk café and drink… absinthe!
DA DA DUM!
The model sees them sharing a bottle and warns her suitor that he must stop drinking the stuff if he hopes to win her. All seems well and the pair become engaged but she once again catches him sipping absinthe. That’s more than she can tolerate, so she returns his ring. He has a choice: he can have his absinthe or he can have her.
As you may guess, the acting in this picture is the kind of arm-flailing melodrama that was already well on its way out of fashion but still had its enthusiastic interpreters. That’s not to say there’s nothing to recommend the picture. I enjoyed the use of closeups, however brief, and found them to be imaginatively framed. But, at the end of the day, this is a morality play, which tended toward the stuffy, and Universal, which tended toward the cheap.
Anyway, the artist returns to his flat and decides to take comfort in the demon drink that caused all of his troubles to begin with. That’s right, he pulls out his own personal bottle of absinthe, pours himself a king size portion and then begins the preparation ritual. Oh, you didn’t know there was an absinthe ritual? Well, read on.
The procedure for absinthe drinking no doubt added to its mystique. The beverage is highly concentrated and unsweetened in the bottle. The proper French way to consume it is to place a sugar cube on a special slotted spoon (with Art Nouveau filigree, ideally) and rest it atop the absinthe glass, which is shaped to measure a portion of the alcohol. The rest of the glass is slowly filled by a drip drip drip of cold water (sometimes from an elaborate miniature fountain, often from a carafe) over the sugar cube, slowly dissolving it and turning the clear green drink milky white. It’s meditative and lovely in its own way and the most enjoyable part of the process.
Absinthe makes use of this ritual by using the slow and hypnotic practice as a segue into the dream sequence. The young artist has a sort of home model of an absinthe water fountain, with a small glass bowl fitted over his goblet with a supersize helping of the alcohol. We get a closeup of his entranced face and then things go downhill.
“It was all a dream” was a reasonably common plot device and Absinthe doesn’t seem to be hiding the fact that it has entered fantasy, what with the blurry dissolve and all. The model shows up and returns her ring, something she had already done earlier in the picture, and then the artist loses his place at the studio. He is even scorned by his absinthe-loving friends, who refuse to share drinks with him now that he cannot pay. In a rage, he strangles one of them and then follows the model to church, where a statue of Mary comes to life and speaks to him.
Now aware of the error of his ways and awaken from his dream, the artist pours his absinthe onto the floor, which is witnessed by the model. The pair reconcile and walk out to the river together to throw the artist’s personal bottle of absinthe off a bridge.
This ending would have been viewed as right and correct by a good portion of the American filmgoing public of 1913. In fact, the picture was featured as a selection for “Pictures in the Pulpit,” wide releases deemed ideal for accompanying sermons. The film was placed alongside a picture portraying opium addiction.
Rumors that absinthe was the cause of madness and violent frenzy swept the world and the beverage was specifically named as the cause of all social ills. (Or was that the pool hall? I must try to keep my moral panics straight.) The importation of absinthe was formally banned by Congress in late 1912, mere weeks before Absinthe was released and a clear case of a movie being torn from the headlines. It must have succeeded, too, as Universal released a second film entitled Absinthe in 1913, a four-reeler shot in Paris starring King Baggot and Leah Baird, two of their top draws at the time.
Supporters of the ban were enthusiastic. “Henceforth there will be no more shipments from Europe by the Americanized Frenchman or the Frenchified Americans,” one article crowed. In addition to its alleged properties as a drug, absinthe was foreign and the wrong kind of foreign. Effete, artistic, French. Xenophobia has its place in this history too.
That’s not to say there was no pushback. An editorial in an Alabama newspaper objected to the state’s absinthe ban in 1911, arguing that “for one absinthe fiend there are 1000 whisky fiends” and that the drink was no more “enslaving” than any other spirit. After the 1913 federal import ban, New York distillers boasted that they had plenty of absinthe to sell in-state. “Residents of New York can drink as much absinthe as they have money to buy.” This soon became moot as Prohibition was around the corner. (France would ban absinthe in 1915 and its path to legalization was odd and complex.)
Much was made of the presence of wormwood in traditional absinthe but the beverage was, at the end of the day, just highly concentrated alcohol with tales of its hallucinogenic powers highly exaggerated and likely the result of drinking it with little or no dilution. Hallucinations have been credited to banana peels in a 1960s hoax-turned-urban legend. As the popularity of absinthe has increased in recent years, laws have been struck off the books with little or no pushback, though real wormwood is still not a legal ingredient many cases. The moral panic against the beverage is all but dead and it has, at most, a slightly naughty, retro image that is good for marketing but nothing to bring about serious calls for a new ban.
Of course, it helps that absinthe has a rather distinctive flavor and a licorice taste profile that is very much a “love it or hate it” affair. It’s not going to take the modern American palate by storm, in my opinion. I liked it overall myself but I think I enjoyed the process more than the resulting drink. That said, it’s fun to have around the place because most Americans have only heard of it and are curious to taste a little. In short, it’s good for my reputation as a purveyor of old-fashioned oddities.
Absinthe is interesting in that it is a pristine example of a moral panic film but the object of its panic is now seen as so innocuous that it is easy to examine the structure and see how the pattern continues to be used. Change up the costumes, substitute “dope” for absinthe and this could have easily been one of the cheesy D.A.R.E. videos that were played at my school. Setting up absinthe as the cause of all social ills created an easy target for reactionary anger and the campaign was shockingly successful.
Absinthe isn’t much of a film on its own but as an example of “the more things change…” it is invaluable. Also, do you think anyone today is selling that special absinthe bowl?
Where can I see it?
Available to stream free courtesy of the EYE Filmmuseum. The intertitles are translated into Dutch but the plot is easy enough to follow even if you do not speak the language.
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Fox made a film in 1915 called Wormwood. It dealt with a man who became an absinthe fiend; one sequence was said to have shown him seeing a hallucination of a leopard chasing him that was a very good special effect for its time. Sadly it is lost like most of the Fox silents.
A real pity. The absinthe films of the period don’t have a good survival rate either, alas.
Pandora’s Box screens at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland on Saturday, May 6. There are four articles about the film, Louise Brooks and the musicians accompanying tonight’s performance. And lots of great images, posters and documentaries.
Enjoy it all at EatDrinkFilms. https://eatdrinkfilms.com/
Not a remarkable film but it was worthwhile watching. I must admit that I had never heard of the drink Absinthe before, so this little film and your review have been very enlightening. Thank you.
glad you enjoyed!