The secret of a Big League curve ball? It's all in the wrist. But for a first-rate martini pitcher it's all in the hips, if you believe William Powell, or rather his incarnation as Nick Charles, raffish sleuth of "The Thin Man" and the silver screen's cocktail expert. Indeed, when movie audiences first meet Nick Charles, he's holding court in a swanky gin mill. The camera pans the room of sophisticated revelers, and in the corner of the club, next to the bar, we notice a man gleefully dancing, not with a woman but with a cocktail shaker. He's instructing the tuxedoed bartenders on the perfect martini beat.
"See, the important thing is the rhythm," he says, never missing a step. "Now a Manhattan, you shake to fox-trot time. A Bronx, to two-step time. But a dry martini you always shake to waltz time."
Then he pours the mixture into a waiting glass, olive ready, and with a flourish places the glass on a silver tray. It is immediately served back to him. He lifts the glass to his nose, savors the fumes and downs the thing. He's his own best customer.
You aren't likely to find such a character in today's movies. It'd spoil the image of such modern heroes as John Rambo or Dirty Harry to be seen dancing with anything less lethal than a .44 magnum. But in the Golden Age of Hollywood, the only magnums shot were the kind that held Champagne. In celebrations, scenes of young love or tableaux of the haut monde , Champagne was a star. It was also a handy plot device.
In "Ninotchka," Greta Garbo tastes the joys of capitalism with her first glass of the bubbly and is hooked. In "The Philadelphia Story," several glasses of Champagne (or as Cary Grant's character calls it, "the great leveler") jostle Katharine Hepburn off her high horse just long enough to make her realize she's about to marry the wrong man. Walt Disney's Dumbo even discovers that he can fly under the influence of the fizzy stuff.
But as a dramatic prop, the cocktail is more versatile than Champagne: Sophistication, seediness or loneliness can all be determined by a character's call at the bar. Cocktail parties were all the rage in the '30s and '40s (all that industrial-strength Prohibition hooch cried out for mixers, and the tradition stuck). The smartest couple on the screen always had a well-stocked bar, and the leading man's better half was expected to be a sport and keep up with the boys--Myrna Loy as Nora Charles, finding hubby Nick sipping his sixth martini, promptly orders six for herself. "Line 'em up," she tells the waiter.
In "Casablanca," Humphrey Bogart is the hero most remember, but Paul Henreid got the girl and the most interesting drinks. Bogey spends most of the film drowning his sorrows in bourbon, straight. But when the very together Henreid escorts Ingrid Bergman to Rick's place, he orders Cointreau and, later in the evening, a Champagne cocktail (usually made with a dash of angostura bitters, sugar and a twist of lemon). The next night Henreid drinks cognac. It's only when talking man-to-man with Bogey that he drinks whiskey.
A man of sophistication doesn't simply drink well; he knows how to mix a drink, too. This invaluable talent rightfully impresses Carole Lombard's well-to-do family in "My Man Godfrey." William Powell (yes, again) as Godfrey charms the lady of the house with a concoction called a Bloody Angeli ca that manages to cure the hangover of the Angelica in question. Godfrey calls his drink "a focusing agent" and is elusive about its ingredients. However, we learn that it involves a pinch of mustard and, like a Bloody Mary, tomato juice. (Angelica tells Godfrey: "You can run amok on the vodka.") Godfrey scores points with a European socialite (Eva Gabor) when he recalls her drink: French vermouth with a dash of cassis and a soda chaser.
As the '50s began, Hollywood's love affair with cocktails was showing signs of strain. In "All About Eve," Bette Davis' character prefers her Scotch straight. At one point someone offers Davis' Margo Channing a bottle of soda water to mix with her drink, only to be met by the steely gaze of those infamous Bette Davis eyes. As Joseph Mankiewicz, the film's Oscar-winning director and screenwriter, put it in the script: "She looks at it (the soda bottle) and at him, as if it were a tarantula and he had gone mad."
Later, Davis throws a big bash but serves her guests inferior liquor. When the bartender asks, "Does Miss Channing know she ordered domestic gin by mistake?" Davis retorts, "The only thing I ordered by mistake is the guests. They're domestic, too, and they don't care what they drink as long as it burns."