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We admit that movies are powerless over alcohol. A fearless moral inventory reveals that the problem lies deep and has been with us a long time.

Screenwriter Susan Burke, the co-writer of the wry Sundance hit Smashed, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, has said that she wanted to focus on the story of a young woman with a drinking problem, a social group generally ignored in film. Where it isn't unusual is in recognizing that booze movies are typically comic or cautionary, and sometimes in combination.

Drunks, in a tradition that predates film, are funny – except when they're doomed. For every half-dozen comic drinking movies – Whisky Galore!, Cat Ballou, Animal House, Arthur and the recent Hangover movies – there are one or two cautionary or inspirational recovery dramas: Nicolas Cage boozing himself to death poetically in Leaving Las Vegas; Jeff Bridges throwing away his talent in Crazy Heart.

Blogger William T. Garver, a booze-and-movie enthusiast who has chronicled the history of alcohol-related films in the Web magazine Modern Alcoholic(he also runs a website, Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide), laments the good old days, before "political correctness and morality run amok … mandated that alcohol be pushed into the background."

There's some truth to that. The heyday of the fun booze era may have been the 1930s, with such stars as W.C. Fields ("A woman drove me to drink and I didn't even have the decency to thank her for it") or William Powell's hard-tippling Nick Charles of The Thin Man movies. If you tried to match Nick drink for drink in The Thin Man, you'd pass out before the movie was halfway through its running time. But the battle between liberation and sobriety has been going on a long time.

In their early years, movies were considered a friend to temperance (they kept people out of bars and speakeasies). But by the end of the 1920s, movies cashed in on prevailing anti-Prohibition sentiments and helped push the repeal movement. Liquor was a symbol of rebellion against Victorian values, and glamorous. (Prohibition had its greatest temperance effect on the beer-drinking poor.) The cautionary anti-alcohol tradition, however, still existed. The 1932 film What Price Hollywood? and the very similar A Star Is Born (1937) directly linked show-business indulgences with alcoholism.

The 1939 publication of Bill Wilson's Alcoholics Anonymous broke the stereotype of the alcoholic as a comic fool. Less than a decade later, in 1945, Billy Wilder's Oscar-winning Lost Weekend, starring Ray Milland, established alcoholism as a disease of the sensitive and privileged. Wilder was attracted to the material, in part, from his experience working with the great detective writer Raymond Chandler, who had relapsed into drinking while working with Wilder on Double Indemnity.The film created a new genre of recovery movies. Perhaps the most poignant of these was Days of Wine and Roses (1962), which showed an attractive Mad Men-era couple (Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick) in an alcoholic spiral, a distinct precursor to Smashed. "You remember how it really was?" says Lemmon's public-relations man, Joe Clay. "You and me and booze – a threesome. You and I were a couple of drunks on the sea of booze, and the boat sank."

The attraction to the stories isn't hard to understand. Portraits of emotional excess provide vicarious thrills. Characters pulling themselves back from the brink provide models of inspiration. Throughout contemporary movie culture, the tragicomic drunk is an indispensible anti-hero: Peter O'Toole in My Favorite Year, Dudley Moore in Arthur, Mickey Rourke in Barfly, Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, Bridges in Crazy Heart, Jimmy Stewart in Harvey, Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, Paul Giamatti in Sideways, Jackie Chan in The Legend of Drunken Master, Richard E. Grant in Withnail and I and, in a rare female example, Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes's devastating A Woman Under the Influence.

Under the influence is where moviegoers are when it comes to these cinematic drunkographies, but there's no need to be too hard on our weakness. Hey, we've taken that all important first step by admitting we are powerless.