Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Wine and the Movies: Part 1

 Wine is a part of life in many wine regions of the world such as France. There has been a spate of movies and documentaries about wine, winemakers and vineyards recently. This could be partly due to the demographic that there are now more wine drinkers than beer drinkers in the US. But what about older movies? Did any of them feature wine or make it an integral part of the movie? And how accurate were these portrayals?  I recently did some research on that very topic and found out some old favorites delved into wine lore without going sideways about it.

Note: Underlined movies are available from Netflix. Others may be more difficult to find. Part 1 covers movies made between 1940 and 1959. All posters courtesy IMDB Pro website.

They Knew What They Wanted (1940) Charles Laughton, Carole Lombard. 

Laughton plays an Italian grape grower in Napa. On a trip to San Francisco he spots Carole, a waitress in a local restaurant, falls for her almost on sight and invites her to come see his vineyard. Yeah, right! Even out of his Quasimodo garb Laughton was not going to flutter any hearts.
The scenes of 1940 Napa Valley are fascinating however. Imagine seeing the valley before the Napa renaissance of wine had begun.
Casablanca (1942) Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains are unforgettable. 

One can’t help but notice all the champagne, cognac and brandy being consumed at Rick’s Café Americain. This is where the toast, “Here’s looking at you, kid,” originated. Rains as Capt Renault orders a bottle of 1926 Veuve Cliquot, which he assures his guest, Major Strasser, was a good year. The Champagne cocktail also seems to be a very popular drink, particularly among those without “letters of transit”. 

I recently saw this movie again at the Cottonwood 16. It was a Turner Classic Movie (TCM) promotion for the 70th anniversary of Casablanca on March 21 and only shown at the Cottonwood cinema. My thanks to them for giving us a glimpse of what the original audiences saw back in 1942.

 Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane and Peter Lorre.   

This was both a classic play and a great movie. What we learn from the movie: to lay off the Elderberry wine. That is what Cary as Mortimer Brewster decides after this dialog with his Aunt Martha.

Aunt Martha: For a gallon of elderberry wine, I take one teaspoon full of arsenic, then add half a teaspoon full of strychnine, and then just a pinch of cyanide.
Mortimer Brewster: Hmm. Should have quite a kick.
Notorious (1946) Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains. 

The wine cellar scenes make me envious every time I see them. The 1934 Pommard is a key element in discovering what secret project the Nazis are working on. Delvin (Grant) knocks a bottle off the shelf and discovers it contains filings of heavy metal.  Unfortunately, they replace it with a bottle of 1940 Pommard. 

I’ve never seen a vintage year displayed that prominently. Usually one has to scan the label carefully to locate it. The date almost glows neon, but then Alfred Hitchcock was known to highlight important clues. The question remains, why didn’t they notice that?  Also, why were those bottles all standing upright? That would dry out the corks. If this was set during the war, 1940 Bordeaux wines would be several years away from being ready to drink and a 1934 just about ready. Surprisingly, one can still purchase a 1934 Pommard for under $300. One would hope there were no heavy metal fillings.
The Unholy Wife (1957) Diana Dors, Rod Steiger, Tom Tryon. 

Here’s a film you may have missed unless you’re a Diana Dors fan. She was Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe and her statuesque figure was poured into many outfits. She’s a gold digger and Rod is a respected Napa winemaker who marries her; shades of Carole Lombard and Charles Laughton.
It would appear Napa winemakers are better at tending grapes than their much younger lovers. The debate between Napa quality and Central Coast quantity discussed din the movie is still a current topic. 
Gigi (1958) Louis Jourdan, Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier. 

The musical won 9 academy awards including best picture as it captured life in turn of the century Paris. Leslie Caron plays the titular character as a courtesan-in-training who must know how to roll a cigar for her man and drink champagne. The song, “The Night They Invented Champagne” is wonderfully staged. I’ve been known to hum a few bars while sipping the bubbly.

Everyone was drinking Champagne in this movie. I wonder how the film was ever made. If nothing else this movie made champagne appear to be the best beverage in the whole world. Well?

This Earth is Mine (1959) Rock Hudson, Jean Simmons, Claude Rains and Dorothy McGuire. 

This film was shot at modern day Rubicon Estate. Issues that divided Napa Valley in the 1930s when this movie was set are still prevalent now and imbue the film with veracity. This was probably the most wine-centric movie before Sideways. One can only hope it will one day be available in DVD.

Philippe Rambeau (Rains) at 70 is the aging patriarch who insists on keeping his grapes out of the hands of bootleggers during Prohibition. His illegitimate son John Rambeau (Hudson) opposes him. The movie captured the impact of Prohibition and the different responses to it. Claude Rains deserves a medal for being in the most wine movies, too.

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