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Raising a Glass to Pre-Code Hollywood: A Review of Forbidden Cocktails

March 19, 2024

Pre-Codes plus cocktails? Now that’s a way to spend an evening—at least to me!

 

André Darlington’s Forbidden Cocktails profiles 50 pre-Code films and pairs each with a distinctive mixed drink. The premise certainly makes sense for fans who know about the pre-Code period. After all, alcohol was a mainstay in films of this era, one that was right in line with the period’s signature audacity, as Prohibition was in effect until December 1933. (For those who don’t know, the pre-Code era is generally defined as lasting from 1930-July 1934.)

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The book opens with a foreword by Mark A. Vieira, author of Sin in Soft Focus and Forbidden Hollywood, two excellent pre-Code works. Two short introductions follow, one providing information on the cocktail front and the other a brief history of the period against the backdrop of the Great Depression and Prohibition. Fun fact: Though the pre-Code era straddled Prohibition, Darlington points out that what we see on-screen, alcohol-wise, before and after December 1933 is quite the same. This is partly because many movies released before Prohibition ended altered settings to make drinking ‘acceptable.’ Think foreign cities, cruise ships, speakeasies, and the like.

 

From there, the 50 entries are presented in chronological order starting with The Divorcee in 1930, a film many consider the true start of the pre-Code era, and ending with The Thin Man in 1934. Each film Darlington covers receives a page or two of text—background on the plot, the importance of the film within the period, censorship information, why the movie is unique, and so forth—along with photos and a drink recipe. Some entries feature cocktail photography, too, which is gorgeously shot. The book ends with a condensed guide to making mixed drinks, recommendations for stocking a home bar, and some of Darlington’s favorite 1930s cocktails.

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Alcohol is basically a supporting character in The Divorcee.

Forbidden Cocktails follows on the heels of another Running Press cocktail book, Eddie Muller’s Noir Bar, released in 2023. Like that book, both works pair films with mixed drinks, and both authors know their stuff—Muller was a bartender, and Darlington is an established cocktail writer with over 10 books on the subject to his name.

 

One way the works diverge is that while Muller mostly stuck to established cocktails, Darlington created unique concoctions for each picture. Inspired by various elements, like a character or star, memorable line, location, or plot point, Darlington sometimes used known recipes as a springboard and added a touch here and a twist there to tailor each drink to the accompanying film.

 

Most people reading this review know I’m a fervent fan of the pre-Code period. With that, I must say that I’m a tough critic. While I did find a few small mistakes in the book, I was pleasantly surprised by many things. First, I love that Darlington highlights several titles that aren’t as well known today. Movies like Anybody’s Woman (1930), The Last Flight (1931), and Bad Girl (1931) aren’t frequently discussed in other pre-Code books the same way The Public Enemy (1931), King Kong (1933), and It Happened One Night (1934) are, for instance. I’m especially pleased he included the aptly named Cocktail Hour (1933)—that title begs inclusion!—which until recently was hard to find. (A Blu-ray release was actually just announced for March 2024.) I always appreciate when a film book shines a spotlight on titles that usually fly under the radar.

 

Additionally, I also learned a few new facts. For instance, I didn’t know that Dracula (1931) originally included an epilogue that was excised for fear it would make audiences believe in the supernatural. I also had no idea that Cary Grant seriously considered leaving Hollywood after This is the Night (1932), because he hated his role in that film so much!

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Cary Grant, Lili Damita, and Roland Young in This is the Night. Grant plays an Olympic javelin thrower in this film. Really.

Now, on the cocktail side of things, I’m a sweet kind of gal. My favorite liquors are vodka and rum (warming up to gin, but it needs to be fruity!). With that, Forbidden Cocktails includes many rum and gin drinks, which made me happy—I even marked a number of them down to try. On the other hand, vodka recipes are hard to come by; there is one recipe in the book, Kansas Romanov, paired with Cocktail Hour. This is because, as stated early on, Darlington’s recipes employ period ingredients, and as pointed out in this entry, Russian-made vodka was rare in the 1930s.

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OK, this cocktail, the Jardin D'Orient from Mandalay, does not look the prettiest, but that's due to my cocktail-making and photography skills, not the recipe. This one has rum + cinnamon syrup + sparkling wine + Cointreau. (We subbed triple sec in for Cointreau.) A very interesting concoction! It tasted like a holiday drink, which I liked.

The majority of the cocktails utilize gin, rum, vermouth, or whiskey, along with fruity liqueurs, bitters, juices, or syrups. Fruity or tropical rum drinks, along with some of the sweet gin concoctions and that one vodka recipe, are all on my list to try: the Count Draquiri (Dracula), Coney Island Roller Coaster (Bad Girl), House of Pain (1932’s Island of Lost Souls), Hotel Hibiscus (1933’s Flying Down to Rio), Tarzan’s Mate (1934’s Tarzan and His Mate), and Jardin D’Orient (1934’s Mandalay). I also chose these drinks because I either have all the ingredients, can make what is needed easily (like a raspberry syrup), or can buy an ingredient that I’ll use for another recipe (grenadine and Angostura bitters, for instance).

All in all, I found Forbidden Cocktails an enjoyable read, one pre-Code enthusiasts will certainly revel in. For cocktail fans who aren’t as familiar with the pre-Code era, Darlington skillfully presents the period's history along with intriguing information on the movies selected. For pre-Code fans, he brings insight, particularly in the alcohol realm, to highlight the classics along with some lesser known titles that deserve appreciation. And with that, I’ve got to get shopping for my first pre-Code inspired cocktail and movie night!

 

Thank you to Running Press for providing me with a copy of this book for review. You can pre-order Forbidden Cocktails here.

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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