From the flickering beginnings of motion pictures to the multiplex-filling offerings of today, alcohol has played a major role in the movies.

In fact, the fabric of film history is soggy with the stuff. The earliest silent movies used the lure of liquor to provide dramatic conflict and drunken slapstick to generate belly laughs. As sound entered the picture, bootleg booze fueled gangster films and champagne supplied the fizz for screwball comedies. Soon rotgut-swilling private eyes and whiskey-swigging cowboys were the rage, followed by cocktail-sipping swingers and spies. Finally, as Hollywood moved away from the studio system and the production code that governed it, antiheroes and subversive comedians tested the limits of drunken misconduct.

Until recent years, the elbow-bender had remained one of the most reliable stock characters in the screenwriter’s bag of tricks. The antisocial inebriate could be used to comment on the values of so-called polite society; the swinging boozehound could set the standard for cool; and the lovable lush could provide dependable comic relief. Unfortunately, booze does play as large a role in contemporary films. Political correctness and morality run amok have mandated that alcohol be pushed into the background, and if imbibing is given any screen time at all, it is usually portrayed as a hazard, sin, or weakness. Liquor rarely generates the same kind of fun in today’s films as it did in the days of W.C. Fields, Nick and Nora Charles, or John “Bluto” Blutarsky.

Drunkard Gear

The following chronologically-arranged list celebrates the best of 100 proof cinema, from Charlie Chaplin to Bad Santa. You’ll notice the conspicuous absence of some of the most famous alcohol-themed flicks, such as The Lost Weekend, The Days of Wine and Roses, and Leaving Las Vegas. For the purposes of this list, I have avoided films that portray alcoholism in a persistently negative light. Drinking is fun, and so are the films that follow. I think you’ll find that watching these films is nearly as fun as drinking itself. Of course, you’ll probably enjoy them even more with a full tank.

One A.M. (1916)

Charlie Chaplin, filmdom’s first megastar, owes his entrance into the movies to booze-spiked humor. In 1913, Mack Sennett invited the then unknown British comedian to Keystone studios after seeing him perform his “drunk act” during an American stage tour. Chaplin soon became Sennett’s top box office draw, and he often mined his inebriated stage shtick in early short subjects including His Favorite Pastime (1914), The Rounders(1914), A Night Out (1915), and A Night in the Show (1915). But Chaplin’s greatest recreation of his drunk act came three years after his film debut with the amazing 20-minute short subject, One A.M.

The short consists of a rich rummy’s attempts to get upstairs to his bed after a night on the town. Chaplin takes this simple premise and turns it into a one-man tour de force, as every prop (a goldfish bowl, throw rugs, dual staircases, taxidermic animals, a clock, and a coat rack) becomes a malevolent obstacle standing between him and his goal. It culminates in the film’s highlight, Chaplin’s epic battle with a Murphy bed that refuses to stay on the floor. This film set the bar for staggering slapstick.

What They’re Drinking
Mystery liquor in a glass decanter (possibly brandy).

Intoxicating Effects
Staggering, stumbling, and destruction of property.

Potent Quotables
Title Card: “That’s the fastest round of drinks I ever saw!”

Similarly Sauced Cinema
Chaplin’s short The Cure (1917) and his feature-length masterpiece, City Lights (1931), are must see comedies with loads of loaded laughs.

 

The Thin Man (1934)

The 30’s and 40’s saw hardboiled detectives and screwball socialites put away liquor with equal aplomb. So when someone had the idea to combine the detective film with the screwball comedy in 1934’s The Thin Man, it was a cocktail of explosive magnitude.

This loose adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel features William Powell as Nick Charles, a retired detective with a Herculean capacity for Scotch, and Myrna Loy as Nora, his equally swizzled socialite wife. Nick is perfectly happy spending his wife’s money on pickling his liver until the daughter of an old client requests his help. It is only after several dead bodies pile up that he grudgingly agrees to take the case. Nick’s initial reluctance to investigate is perfectly understandable, because as he states, “It’s putting me way behind in my drinking.”

What They’re Drinking
Gin (dry martinis), rye (straight & highballs), Scotch (straight and with soda), champagne, cocktails.

Intoxicating Effects
Slurred speech, swaying, staggering, stumbling, sentimentality, harmonizing, and hangovers.

Potent Quotables
NORA: Now, how many drinks have you had?
NICK: This will make six martinis.
NORA: All right. (To waiter) Will you bring me five more martinis, Leo, and line them right up here?

Similarly Sauced Cinema
Nick and Nora returned in five sequels, After the Thin Man (1936), Another Thin Man (1939), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), The Thin Man Goes Home (1944), and Song of the Thin Man (1947). The second film is nearly as flammable as the first, but Nick and Nora curbed the cocktails dramatically in the later outings.

 

The Bank Dick (1940)

If I could nominate a single actor to be canonized as the patron saint of 100 proof cinema, it would have to be W.C. Fields. Not only was he the funniest man, drunk or sober, to ever step in front of a movie camera, no other performer before or since has managed to wring more mirth out of a bar rag. Whether playing a hen-pecked husband or an itinerant con man, all of W.C.s’ characters share a hilarious misanthropic streak and a strong proclivity for the bottle.

Although it is difficult to select just one of Fields’ films, The Bank Dick is a strong contender for the title of the Great Man’s greatest, which is another way of saying that it may be the very pinnacle of screen comedy.   In this hilarious film, Fields portrays Egbert Sousé, a small town layabout who spends his happiest hours downing cocktails at the Black Pussy Café. After accidentally disrupting the getaway of bank rob bers, Sousé is rewarded with a job as a security guard and is soon involved in embezzling bank funds. The paper-thin plot serves as a framework on which to hang a number of alcohol-fueled gags, including a memorable sequence where Fields slips the bank examiner a Mickey with the help of the Black Pussy’s bartender, Joe (Stooge Shemp Howard).

What They’re Drinking
Straight rye (referred to as “poultice” and “depth bombs”), rye highballs, absinthe, whiskey.

Intoxicating Effects
Boasting, swearing (of a sort), hiccups, slurred speech, staggering, and passing out.

Potent Quotables
SOUSÉ: Has Michael Finn been in here today?
JOE: No, but he will be.

Similarly Sauced Cinema
No fan of liquor-soaked hilarity should miss any of the Great Man’s films. The best include The Old Fashioned Way (1934), It’s a Gift (1934), The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935), and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941).

 

Whisky Galore   (1949)

“There’s no whiskey!” announces the bartender. Upon hearing this dire pronouncement, a stunned barfly ambles out of the pub and takes to his bed, dying soon after. Thus begins Whisky Galore, a delightful British comedy that looks back at liquor rationing during World War II.

The story takes place on Todd ay , a small island 100 miles off the coast of Scotland , where the government allotment of four bottles of whiskey is nowhere near enough to sate the thirst of its residents. Without the golden liquid life loses all meaning for the islanders, until a miracle happens — a ship carrying 50,000 cases of whisky wrecks upon the rocks surrounding the island. The crafty islanders have to overcome several obstacles on the way to their beloved drink, including a military guard on the ship, the local bartender who sees the cargo as a threat to his business, and the religious requirements of the Sabbath. Even after the islanders are once again suitably lubricated, the narrator info rms us that all did not live happily ever after, because the whisky eventually ran out.

What They’re Drinking
Whisky (presumably Scotch).

Intoxicating Effects
Harmonizing, hiccups, loosened inhibitions, and bravado.

Potent Quotables
NARRATOR: Whiskey… usquebaugh… in Gaelic they call it “the water of life,” and to a true islander, life without it is not worth living.

Similarly Sauced Cinema
In the World War II comedy The Secret of Santa Vittoria(1969) the mayor (Anthony Quinn) of a small Italian town leads the populace in their attempt to hide a million bottles of wine from the advancing Germans.

 

Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964)

No list of alcohol-soaked cinema would be complete without the Rat Pack. Unfortunately, most of their films lack the fizz and swagger of their historic nightclub act. Apart from Dino’s unforgettable rendition of “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head,” Ocean’s Eleven (1960) is a bit of a snooze, and the warmed-over Gunga Din remake, Sergeant’s 3 (1962), is best forgotten altogether. That leaves Robin and the 7 Hoods, easily the giddiest of the Rat Pack’s films and more importantly the tipsiest.

This gangsterfied version of Robin Hood, set in 1920’s Chicago , concerns Robbo’s (Frank Sinatra) efforts to wrench control of the liquor and gambling trade from rival mobster Guy Gisborne (Peter Falk). Robbo’s gang of merry men, including Little John (Dean Martin), Will (Sammy Davis Jr.), and Alan A. Dale (Bing Crosby), all get the opportunity to croon between sips of bootleg hooch, but the highlight of the film is when they join together to sing satirically of the evils of drink with the rousing temperance number, “Mr. Booze.”

What They’re Drinking
Champagne , whiskey, Cointreau, brandy.

Intoxicating Effects
None. The Pack hold their liquor with class.

Potent Quotables
JOHN: A hundred thousand hangovers down the drain.

Similarly Sauced Cinema
Frank and Dean put away the booze like pros in their first film together, Some Came Running (1958).

 

Cat Ballou (1965)

From the shorts of silent film star William S. Hart to HBO’s Deadwood, liquor has played an essential role in Western storytelling. Any number of oaters could have qualified for this list, but the Western comedy Cat Ballou may well be the most bleary eyed, thanks to Lee Marvin’s Oscar-winning performance as the alky gunslinger Kid Shelleen.

Shelleen comes to the aid of Catherine Ballou (Jane Fonda), an inexperienced schoolteacher, when the crooked authorities of Wolf City try to force her father off his land. With Shelleen’s help, Cat soon finds herself in custody with a noose around her neck. The film features plenty of drunken horseback riding and gunplay, but the most memorable image is that of the hungover Shelleen atop a woozy, cross-legged horse.

What They’re Drinking
Whiskey.

Intoxicating Effects
Slurred speech, bad breath, staggering , passing out, harmonizing, drunk horseback riding, bravado, public disturbance, destruction of property, physical violence, and hangovers.

Potent Quotables
JACKSON : Look at your eyes.
SHELLEEN: What’s wrong with my eyes?
JACKSON : They’re red … bloodshot.
SHELLEEN: You ought to see ‘ em from my side.

Similarly Sauced Cinema
Other memorable drunken cowboys include Dude (Dean Martin), a deputy who attempts to cure his alcoholism by drinking beer, in Rio Bravo (1959), and the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), the gunfighter with the shakiest gun hand in movie history, in Blazing Saddles (1974).

 

National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978)

If you can remember your college years, you didn’t fully enjoy your college years. No film captures that perfect pairing of liquor and higher education quite so well as National Lampoon’s Animal House. This subversive campus comedy set in the early 60’s concerns the hijinks (drunken, illegal, sexual, and otherwise) of the denizens of Delta House, Faber College ‘s rowdiest, dirtiest, drinkin’est frat. The Deltas are an embarrassment to Dean Wormer (the wonderfully slimy John Vernon), who puts the boys on “double-secret p rob ation” and tries to shut down the house with the help of the Omegas, a rival preppy fraternity. Of course the Deltas retaliate with the mother of all stupid, disgusting, alcohol-fueled pranks.

Animal House is most notable for introducing the world to the most iconic of all movie party animals, John “ Bluto” Blutarsky. Portrayed with sloppy, vulgar vitality by John Belushi, Blutarsky is utterly unforgettable because his character is so true to life. Everyone knew a beer-swilling merrymaker like Bluto back in his or her college days. That is, unless you were the Bluto Blutarsky of your college. Toga! Toga! Toga!

What They’re Drinking
Bourbon, beer, spiked punch.

Intoxicating Effects
Belching, staggering, stumbling, swearing, passing out, public urination, vomiting, harmonizing, drunk driving, destruction of property, loosened inhibitions, and soused sex.

Potent Quotables
BLUTO: My advice to you is to start drinking heavily.
OTTER: You better listen to him, Flounder. He’s in premed.

Similarly Sauced Cinema
Hollywood tried to recapture the magic of Animal House’s R-rated campus humor with the 2003 comedy Old School but the results were a mixed bag.

 

Drunken Master (1978)

If asked to name the greatest boozing action hero most people would immediately answer James Bond, but they’d be dead wrong. “Vodka martini, shaken not stirred” — what kind of a prissy drink order is that? Shaken … stirred… who gives a shit?! Just don’t skimp on the booze. Let’s face it; Bond is a cocktail sipper at best.

Wong Fei-Hung, on the other hand, is as heroic in his alcohol intake as he is in the face of danger. This legendary Chinese folk hero had been depicted in numerous films before Jackie Chan shot to stardom with his inebriated take on the character in 1978’s Drunken Master. The drunken master of the title is Fei-Hung’s uncle, Su Hia-Chi, a renowned martial arts master and wino, to whom the young Fei-Hung is sent as a punishment after disgracing his family. Under the old man’s tutelage, Fei-Hung learns the secrets of drunken boxing, a style of Kung Fu that imitates the groggy motions of a lush. This method of fighting is most powerful if the user first gets pie-eyed drunk, a condition to which Fei-Hung happily adheres. With his new knowledge and a bellyful of 100 proof wine, Wong Fei-Hung saves his family from a hired assassin and emerges as a new drunken master.

What They’re Drinking
Wine (standard and 100 proof).

Intoxicating Effects
Staggering, passing out, the shakes, hiccups, public disturbance, destruction of property, and physical violence

Potent Quotables
SU HUA-CHI: To study my style, you’ll find it easier if you have a drink first.

Similarly Sauced Cinema
Jackie Chan reprised the role of Wong Fei-Hung in 1994’s Drunken Master II ( akaThe Legend of Drunken Master). Both the stunt work and juicing are supercharged in the sequel, including Fei-Hung’s consumption of industrial alcohol to increase his strength during the final battle.

 

Arthur (1981)

Writer/director Steve Gordon concocted this affectionate throwback to screwball comedies of the 30’s and included all the trappings of the genre — witty dialogue, wealthy socialites, romantic hurdles and vast quantities of liquor. Dudley Moore portrays the film’s title character, everyone’s favorite good-natured inebriate, Arthur Bach. Arthur is a giggling, drunken millionaire who simply wants to be loved. Unfortunately, his grasping relatives expect Arthur to augment their empire by marrying him off to the daughter of an equally rich businessman. When Arthur falls for a working-class waitress ( Liza Minnelli) instead, he must choose between love and $750 million.

Arthur turned out to be one of the funniest films of the 80’s, and the sparkling writing brought out career-topping work from Moore, Minnelli, and John Geilgud (as Arthur’s butler and father figure, Hobson). It’s a shame Steve Gordon died only a year after directing it, his first and only film. We could have used a few more classy cocktails like this one.

What They’re Drinking
Scotch, gin (martinis), beer, and champagne.

Intoxicating Effects
Slurred speech, the giggles, swearing, staggering, stumbling, bad breath, soused sex, drunk driving, passing out, and public disturbance.

Potent Quotables
ARTHUR: This is what I am. Everyone who drinks is not a poet. Some of us drink because we’re not poets.
SUSAN: A real woman could stop you from drinking.
ARTHUR: It would have to be a real big woman.

Similarly Sauced Cinema
Other lovable drunks include Jack Griffith (Jackie Gleason) in Papa’s Delicate Condition (1963) and Alan Swann (Peter O’Toole) in My Favorite Year (1982).

 

Strange Brew (1983)

Good day, eh. Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas created the characters of the beer-loving Canucks, Bob and Doug McKenzie, for the sketch comedy show SCTV in order to mock Canada ‘s broadcast rules that require television networks to include “Canadian content” in their programming. Due to their popularity, the McKenzie brothers not only became series regulars, they eventually leapt to the big screen in Strange Brew, the ultimate cinematic love letter to beer.

From the opening logo, when the MGM lion lets out a belch, Strange Brew promises to be stupid and sudsy in the best way. The plot gets moving when Bob and Doug try to get free beer from the Elsinore Brewery with their “mouse in an empty beer bottle” trick. Instead of beer, the boys are given jobs at the brewery, and they soon find themselves entangled in a family power struggle (borrowed heavily from Shakespeare’s Hamlet) and a plot to take over the world by lacing beer with a mind-controlling drug. When the tainted beer is delivered to the local Oktoberfest celebration, only Bob, Doug, and their alcoholic dog, Hosehead, can save the day, eh.

What They’re Drinking
Beer.

Intoxicating Effects
Belching, public urination, hockey.

Potent Quotables
BOB: This movie was shot in 3-B — three beers, and it looks good, eh.
DOUG: Hoserama. Call it Hoserama, eh.

Similarly Sauced Cinema
In 1999 Bob and Doug were set to return for a sequel titled Home Brew, but   the financing fell through, dooming the project. They did play a variation of the characters as talking moose in the animated film Brother Bear (2003).

 

Barfly (1987)

Charles Bukowski, like most of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, was a heavy drinker, lending an him insider’s view of the drunken underclass he celebrated in his poetry and prose. Bukowski’s world of stewbums and lushes was brought brilliantly to the screen in Barfly, a quirky, liquored love story, scripted by the master himself.

Mickey Rourke expertly mimics Bukowski’s voice and mannerisms as Henry Chinaski, a full-time hooch hound who enjoys nothing more than spending his hours at the Skid Row dive The Golden Horn, downing Scotch and trading bare-knuckled blows with the bartender, Eddie (Frank Stallone). When Henry encounters Wanda (Faye Dunaway), a floozy willing to sell herself for a drink, he realizes that he’s found his soul mate, but the romance is far from smooth. A rich magazine editor (Alice Krige) wants Henry for herself, and Henry is forced to choose between a comfortable writer’s life and sloppy drunkenness with Wanda. Of course, he chooses the booze. Keep an eye out for the real Bukowski who makes a cameo as — what else? — a barfly.

What They’re Drinking
Scotch, beer, wine, whiskey.

Intoxicating Effects
Bravado, public disturbance, physical violence, staggering, stumbling, swearing, soused sex, hangovers, the shakes, and round-buying.

Potent Quotables
HENRY: Anybody can be a non-drunk. It takes a special talent to be a drunk. It takes endurance. Endurance is more important than truth.

Similarly Sauced Cinema
John ny Depp masterfully captured the essence of Hunter S. Thompson, another great drunkard writer, in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), and Matt Dillon reprises Henry Chinaski in the soon to be released Factotum (2005), based on the Bukowski novel of the same title.

 

Bad Santa (2003)

Twenty-First Century booze humor got off to a great start with Bad Santa, a laugh-out loud dark comedy that can proudly stand head-to-head with the best work of the Great Man, W.C. Fields. In the film a small-time safecracker Willie Soak ( Bill y Bob Thornton) and his dwarf partner Marcus (Tony Cox) take jobs each year as a department store Santa and Elf to case the businesses they plan to rob . Unfortunately, Willie has become unreliable because he’s a drunk. Not a good-natured drunk like Dudley Moore’s Arthur, but a bad tempered, foul-mouthed, suicidal, pissing-his-pants drunk. To further complicate the planned heist, Willie finds he can’t shake a weird, fat kid (Brett Kelly) who still believes in Santa Claus.

Thankfully, this is not the type of film where a grumpy adult learns the true meaning of Christmas from a lovable waif. Bad Santa is vile, depraved, gross, and at times near tragic, but the film manages to get away with its dark subject matter because it is uproariously funny. If you hate Christmas or you just love liquored laughs, Bad Santa will have you in hysterics for days after viewing it.

What They’re Drinking
Bourbon, beer, vodka.

Intoxicating Effects
Swearing, staggering, stumbling, vomiting, public urination, soused sex, passing out, the shakes, public disturbance, destruction of property, and physical violence.

Potent Quotables
WILLIE: You can’t drink worth a shit. You know that?
MARCUS: I weight 92 pounds, you dick.

Similarly Sauced Cinema
Coach Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) in The Bad News Bears (1976) also mixed kids and alcohol with amusing results, so it wasn’t surprising that Billy Bob agreed to put his stamp on the role in the 2005 remake.

—William Garver