The Lost Weekend (1945)
In 1945, The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called The Lost Weekend a “shatteringly realistic and morbidly fascinating film…an illustration of a drunkard’s misery that ranks with the best and most disturbing character studies ever put on the screen.” He added, “We would not recommend this picture for a gay evening on the town. But it is certainly an overwhelming drama which every adult movie-goer should see.”
I must agree–The Lost Weekend‘s unflinching look at an alcoholic in the grips of his disease is far from lighthearted entertainment, but it’s a terrific movie that everyone should see.
This film challenges a common misconception about classic movies: some people assume that all old films are light, naive, and simplistic, and never deal with anything of substance in a sensitive or nuanced way.
Sure, many classic films are light and entertaining; Old Hollywood was a profit-driven enterprise aiming to fill theaters and delight mass audiences. But not every old movie is quaintly old-fashioned, and some will blow your socks off with their gritty intensity or suprisingly “modern” attitudes. The Lost Weekend is one of those films.
This movie tackles alcoholism in an astonishingly honest, complex way. It was rare for alcoholism to be treated as a disease in the 1940s, (and even today), but this film does, and does so in an achingly brilliant way. It remains one of the best films about alcoholism and addiction even seventy years after its release.
The Lost Weekend was based on Charles Jackson’s semi-autobiographical novel published in 1944. Producer Charles Brackett and director/writer Billy Wilder adapted the “strange and savage pages” of the “shocking bestseller” (according to the film’s poster) for the screen.
Their first choice for the lead was Jose Ferrer, who was currently starring on Broadway in Othello. But Paramount wanted a well-known movie star because they were afraid audiences wouldn’t take a chance on this unusual movie unless they knew the actor. So Ray Milland was cast, instead. Milland had worked with Brackett and Wilder on 1942’s The Major and The Minor, and they were happy to be working together again.
But Milland was apprehensive about the role. He’d worked in films since 1929, but he was primarily known for comedies. If you’ve seen him in Easy Living (1937), for example, you’ll be amazed at his work in this movie. But Milland’s wife Muriel and Wilder convinced him he could play the part, so he set about preparing.
It’s hard to imagine the story without the character of Helen, Milland’s girlfriend, but The Lost Weekend the novel had no love interest. The girlfriend was an invention of Brackett and Wilder, who thought that a love interest would make the film slightly less bleak. Jackson didn’t mind the changes, noting that Brackett and Wilder “thought of things I wish I had thought of first – they were that good.”
Originally, the filmmakers hoped that Katharine Hepburn would play the girlfriend. She was interested, but was about to start filming Without Love (1945) so she had to pass. When Jean Arthur, Milland’s co-star from Easy Living, turned down the part, Paramount asked Warner Bros. to loan them Jane Wyman. And that’s how we ended up with Wyman as Helen St. James!
Wyman had been in movies since 1932, but mostly in small roles in small movies. This was a big break for the actress, and marked the first film in which Wyman received co-star billing above the title. She would go on to a very successful career in films like The Yearling (1946), Johnny Belinda (1948), Magnificent Obsession (1954), and All That Heaven Allows (1955).
The movie opens on a virtuosic shot of New York City that pans across the skyline and travels into an apartment through an open window. A bottle hangs below the far window. Trouble.
Don Birnam (Ray Milland) packs a suitcase in the bedroom, but he seems far more focused on the bottle tied to the window than on his shirts and socks.
Don’s brother Wick (Phillip Terry), keeps up a cheery conversation about their upcoming weekend in the country. They’re taking an afternoon train and need to hurry.
We learn that Don struggles with alcohol, but he’s been sober for about ten days. Wick has planned a weekend stay in the country to help Don continue his streak and maybe even get some work done. Don is a writer, but not a productive one. Wick is hopeful that Don is finally ready to buckle down both with his sobriety and the novel he’s been planning to write.
But we don’t share Wick’s confidence. We’ve seen the hidden bottle swaying below the window, and know that Don is dying for a drink.
We’re proven right when Don sends Wick out of the room to search for his typewriter (which Don knows is under his bed). Once Wick is out of sight, Don tries to untie the bottle but he can’t manage it before Wick returns. Then Don’s girlfriend, Helen (Jane Wyman) arrives. You can watch the scene here.
Helen has brought Don books and cigarettes for his weekend away. Like Wick, Helen is hopeful and upbeat. This time she’s sure that Don has quit for good!
Fun fact: Wyman and Terry both had famous spouses when they made this movie. Terry was married to Joan Crawford, though they would divorce in 1946. Wyman was married to Ronald Reagan from 1940-1949, which makes her the only ex-wife of an American President!
When Helen mentions that she is going to the symphony that afternoon, Don suggests that she take Wick with her. Don has a lot to do around the apartment, and he’d rather take the evening train to the country.
This suggestion is met with worried looks. Wick and Helen might be hopeful, but they’re not stupid. They’ve been here before, and they are afraid that Don wants them out of the way so he can start drinking again. Don is persuasive, though, and he makes his brother and his devoted girlfriend feel guilty for trying to keep an eye on him. He’s fine, he says, and he’s definitely not sending them away so he can go on a bender.
Wick and Helen decide that they have to trust Don sometime, though they don’t really want to. They’re about to leave for the symphony when Wick spots the bottle hanging beneath the sill. He’s disappointed, to say the least, and dumps out the liquor in the sink as Don watches, horrified.
Helen doesn’t want to leave Don now, but Wick assures her that he has found all of Don’s other hiding places. Plus, Don doesn’t have any money, and Wick has gone to every bar and liquor store and told them not to sell Don alcohol on credit. Wick has been paying Don’s bills, but he’s not going to anymore.
Wick tells Don that he’ll be back at 6:00 to catch the train, then he and Helen leave. It’s an awful, tense scene displaying the complex fears, hope, and guilt of Wick and Helen, and the driving need of Don. The film thrusts us directly into the quagmire.
Once Wick and Helen are gone, Don wildly searches the apartment for liqour that Wick may have missed.
But the bathroom vent, the vacuum cleaner bag, and the stash beneath the couch have been empties. Just then, the cleaning woman knocks on the door. She’s come to collect her payment. Don tells her to scram because he doesn’t have her money, but she tells him that Wick usually leaves it for her in the sugar bowl.
Don goes to check, and there it is! Ten bucks folded snugly in the lid. If you’ve seen Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), you’ll recognize this scene. Steve Martin plays the cleaning woman part.
Instead of giving the innocent cleaning woman her money, Don tells her that Wick must have forgotten, and sends her away empty-handed. Then he leaves the apartment with the princely sum of ten dollars in his pocket. You can watch the scene here.
Don’s first stop is a liquor store where he buys two quarts of rye.
The scene is filmed in brilliant Expressionist style with the bottles looming large in the foreground. Billy Wilder was no stranger to German Expressionism, a style that was used to present the world or a character as warped or insane. Crazy camera angles, dream-like/nightmarish scenes, wild sets, and other conspicuous visual touches that take the viewer inside the mind of a disturbed character were the marks of German Expressionism. (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) is a classic example.) The style’s influence is most evident in in film noir, where you’ll often see unusual camera angles and expressive lighting, for example.
Wilder uses Expressionist techniques in this film to take us inside Don’s mind and to show us the world as Don sees it.
So, for example, the liquor bottles that appear huge in the foreground and obscure the store and Don himself in this scene can be read as a visual symbol of Don’s alcoholism. His world is framed and obscured by his need for alcohol. It’s the biggest drive in his life and overshadows everything else, just like the bottles!
Another noteworthy stylistic element in this film is the score. Miklós Rózsa, a noted film composer, crafted an eerie, haunting score for the film using the theremin. The music, and particularly the theremin sections, work perfectly to heighten the drama and trauma of Don’s turmoil.
The theremin was patented in 1928 by a Russian inventor–it’s L-shaped and is played by moving one’s hands through an electronic field. One part controls volume, the other pitch, but the player never touches anything. Here’s a video of a theremin being played, and here’s a theremin in “The Big Bang Theory.”
You can listen to part of The Lost Weekend’s score here. Eerie, right? You may recognize the sound of the theremin from science fiction films because it was a popular choice for that genre in the 1950s and later. In this film it signals Don’s cravings or descents into drunkenness.
Rózsa was the first to incorporate the theremin in film scores. He also utilized the unusual instrument for Hitchcock‘s Spellbound, also in 1945. That score was supposed to be the first one with the theremin, which producer David O. Selznick was really excited about. When he found out that Rózsa was also using the instrument in his score for The Lost Weekend, Selznick was furious. He knew that The Lost Weekend would be released before Spellbound (Weekend was released in November, Spellbound in December), thus spoiling Selznick’s “first-score-with-theremin” thunder.
Back to the movie! A much happier Don takes his two quarts to a bar down the street. At first, Nat the bartender (Howard Da Silva) tells Don to get out, since he won’t give him anything on credit. But Don flashes his ill-gotten cash, and Nat has no choice but to pour him a shot of rye.
Don notices Nat watching him as he leaps for the brimming glass, so Don slowly lowers it and pretends he’s not dying for the drink. When Nat turns his back, though, Don gulps it down. Nat watches in the mirror.
Fun fact: this movie was filmed in the fall of 1944 with exterior scenes shot on location in New York City, and interiors back at Paramount. This bar was built on Paramount’s Soundstage 5, and although in the film it’s called “Nat’s Bar,” the set is an exact replica of the famous P. J. Clarke’s on Third Avenue,
Paramount’s set designers did such an excellent job recreating P. J. Clarke’s that writer, actor, and homesick New Yorker Robert Benchley started hanging out there. Benchley would walk into the set everyday at 5pm, and Da Silva would pour him a shot of real bourbon (not the iced tea used for filming). And Benchley would pretend he was back at home in his favorite bar!
Here is “Nat’s Bar” in the film, P. J. Clarke’s today, and a film still photographed in the bar (though Milland and Da Silva were actually seated in Paramount’s replica.) It’s from an amazing blog called FILMography. You can find many other photos from movies old and new on the site.
As Don continues to down shots of whiskey, he becomes more expansive, relaxed, and literary. He even flirts with resident barfly and lady of questionable character Gloria (Doris Dowling).
She likes Don, and we get the feeling that the two of them often enjoy conversations at Nat’s, usually when Don is hammered. In an oddly modern twist, Gloria frequently drops the abbreviation “ridic” for “ridiculous” into her conversation, and Don responds with “natch” for “naturally.” And I thought millennials invented abbrevs! You can watch the scene here.
Don asks Nat to let him know when it’s a quarter to six so he can be home when Wick comes back. He still intends to go to the country, but he just couldn’t face it without some rye in his suitcase (and his belly.) He tells Nat that he intends to hide one bottle in Wick’s own suitcase, and then let Wick find the other bottle. That way, Wick will think he has found Don’s stash and he won’t keep such a close watch on him. You can tell that even the veteran bartender is pretty disgusted by Don.
Don tries to explain to Nat why he drinks and what it feels like: “It shrinks my liver, doesn’t it, Nat? It pickles my kidneys, yeah. But what it does to the mind! It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar…”
Nat just listens. He’s heard it all before.
The rye keeps sliding down Don’s throat, and soon it’s past six o’clock. Nat has been trying to alert Don to the time for a while, but Don is too drunk now to listen. He doesn’t even want Nat to wipe up the little rye rings left on the counter in front of him.
Meanwhile, Wick and Helen are very upset when they return to Don’s apartment and realize he is gone. They discuss Don’s probable relapse. It’s a difficult scene to watch, especially if you or anyone you care about has struggled with addiction or other self-destructive behaviors.
Wick says that he is through trying to help Don. It’s been six years, and he can’t do it anymore. So he’s not going to search for Don, or stay and wait at the apartment. He’s going to the country as planned, and Don can stay here and drink himself to death if that is what he wants: “If it happens, it happens and I hope it does. I’ve had six years of this…Who are we fooling? We’ve tried everything, haven’t we? We’ve reasoned with him. We’ve baited him. We’ve watched him like a hawk. We’ve tried trusting him…”
Helen isn’t ready to let go, though. She tells Wick: “He’s a sick person. It’s as though there was something wrong with his heart or his lungs. You wouldn’t walk out on him if he had an attack. He needs our help.” But Wick has heard all of that before, too: “He won’t accept our help. Not Don, he hates us. He wants to be alone with that bottle of his. It’s all he gives a hang about. Why kid ourselves? He’s a hopeless alcoholic.”
It’s a terrible scene, and one of the most honest, raw conversations about an addict you’ll see anywhere.
Wick leaves, but Helen stays to pace the sidewalk outside Don’s front door. But Don waits at the back door and then sneaks into his apartment when Helen’s back is turned. She waits for hours and then makes the rounds of his favorite bars searching for him. And all the time, Don is upstairs with his bottles.
Don hides one bottle in his ceiling light fixture before settling down with a smile to drain the other one. The camera approaches the whiskey with Expressionist flair until it drowns in the glass and the film fades to black, just like Don.
Don wakes up the next morning to a horrifying sight: an empty bottle. But he still has some money left, so he goes out, ignoring Helen’s note pinned to the door:
Don heads for Nat’s Bar. Nat is fixing himself some breakfast and isn’t thrilled to see Don. Gloria arrives and Don flirts again, even promising to take her out for a fancy date that night. She is delighted and hurries off to go shopping and get her hair done.
This makes Nat furious. He knows that Don has no intention of taking Gloria out, and he’s tired of dealing with him. Plus, Nat tells Don that Helen came looking for him last night, and he doesn’t understand how Don can be so awful to her.
Don tries to explain himself to Nat (and the audience). He tells Nat how he plans to write a novel about an alcoholic writer and the girl who loves him despite his horrible behavior. Cue the extended flashback.
It’s several years ago, and Don attends a matinee of La Traviata. He’s already an alcoholic, and he stashed a bottle of rye in his raincoat pocket. But he had to check the coat, and now all he can focus on is the alcohol onstage.
He’s so fixated on the (fake) liquor being consumed by the performers that he hallucinates, turning the ballgowns into a row of swaying raincoats. One has rye in the pocket.
Don almost loses it in his seat. He needs a drink desperately, so as soon as the song ends, he goes to retrieve his coat and the important bottle. But there has been a mistake, and Don’s ticket corresponds to a woman’s leopard coat. The attendant refuses to let Don search for his raincoat, so he is forced to wait for the opera to end. Eventually, he and Helen are the only people left.
They exchange coats, but Don’s rudeness turns to kindness when he discovers that he really likes this lady. She works at Time Magazine and is smart and funny. She even invites him to a party that evening. Don is tempted, but the rye in his pocket tempts him more.
You can watch the scene here. Edith Head designed the costumes for this film, and Helen’s leopard coat is spectacular. And it’s not just a coat–it’s a plot point, too, and one of Helen’s most prized possessions! Remember that.
Don promises to call her, and they part. But just as Helen turns to go, the bottle falls out of Don’s pocket and smashes on the sidewalk. Don is mortified.
He doesn’t want to tell her the truth, so he says that he was taking the whiskey to a sick friend to make him a hot toddy. Oh, and what kind of party is she going to? he asks. When she says it is a cocktail party, he says he’d love to accompany her after all. He’s got to get a drink somehow.
It’s ironic that alcohol brought them together, right? Don explains in voiceover that he liked Helen so much that he stopped drinking for a while because he didn’t want her to see him that way.
Later, Helen’s parents come to town to meet their daughter’s serious boyfriend. Don waits for them in the hotel lobby and overhears their conversation about him.
They are not thrilled because Don didn’t finish college and he doesn’t have a steady job. He’s not exactly the type of man they want for their daughter.
This is too much for Don to handle. He sneaks away and calls Helen from the lobby, explaining that he’ll be late. Then he goes home and gets stinking drunk for the first time in a while. Wick finds him there.
Helen arrives unexpectedly and Wick sends Don into the bedroom. Wick tells Helen that Don is interviewing for a job in Philadelphia.
Helen is disappointed that Don didn’t meet her parents, but delighted about the interview! She sprawls on the couch as she says how nice it would be for Don to have a job. And out rolls an empty whiskey bottle.
Wick tries to hide it, but Helen sees it. So Wick pretends it is his bottle, and that he is the one with a drinking problem. Don is horrified. He emerges from the bedroom to tell Helen the truth.
It all started when he was proclaimed a writing prodigy and dropped out of Cornell to take the world by storm. But his first efforts were unsuccessful, and the grand novel he planned didn’t happen. Writer’s block and crippling anxiety set in.
So he started drinking for inspiration, then drinking more to “counterbalance” the despair when inspiration didn’t strike. Now he drinks because of what he wanted to become and what he is.
He says that there are two “Dons,” the nice, normal guy, and then the “Other Don,” who craves alcohol and will do anything to get it. He even confesses to Helen and Wick that he bought a gun to kill himself on his 30th birthday, but the Other Don wanted a drink, so he pawned the gun to buy whiskey.
Helen listens to it all. But she doesn’t walk out. Instead, she grits her teeth, tells Wick to make coffee, and promises Don she is going to help him fight it. End flashback. It’s been about three years since Helen made that promise.
Nat tells Don that he should write this story, and Don gets excited. Maybe this time he can do it! He rushes home and sits down at his typewriter. He starts strong, but fades quickly after writing the dedication. And then he’s back to staring at the empty bottle.
Don needs a drink, but he can’t remember where he hid the second quart. He destroys his apartment looking for it, but no luck. I love that shot of Don lying on the couch with the lighting fixture and its hidden bottle mocking him.
Don gives up the search and goes out. He ends up at a fancy restaurant and downs several gin and vermouths. But when the check comes he realizes he doesn’t have enough money to pay it. So he hits a new low and steals the purse of the woman at the table next to him.
He gets caught, a crowd gathers, and he is thrown out of the restaurant.
Don stumbles home, disgusted with himself but still craving more alcohol. He sprawls on the couch and gets a happy surprise: the second bottle! He drinks until he passes out for the second night in a row.
The next morning, Don wakes up with a terrible hangover and even worse cravings. He grabs his only possession of value, his typewriter, and sets out for his pawn shop. But it’s closed!
He learns to his horror that all the pawn shops are closed in honor of Yom Kippur. A Jewish man explains that even the Irish-owned pawn shops are closed, because the owners have a reciprocal agreement: the Irish shops close on Yom Kippur, and the Jewish ones close on St. Patrick’s Day. It’s a considerate arrangement, but Don doesn’t care. How is he going to get the drink he so desperately needs if he can’t pawn anything?
To get the look of an alcoholic on a horrible bender, Milland went on a crash diet to lose weight. He subsisted on dry toast, boiled eggs, coffee and grapefruit juice. Apparently he even tried getting drunk, but he wasn’t much of a drinker and would throw up before he got to the point where Don lives.
Don makes it to Nat’s bar, but Nat throws him out after pouring him one shot as charity. Then Don remembers that Gloria lives right next to the bar…She’s furious with him–remember that he stood her up last night? But she must really like him, because she softens and gives him some money when he begs for it. She thinks he’s really ill.
As Don leaves the apartment, he trips and crashes down the stairs.
Next thing we know, Don is waking up in the alcoholics ward at Bellevue Hospital. He was brought in after his fall, and quickly transferred to this ward when they tested his blood. He has a concussion and a crazy blood alcohol limit, but otherwise he’s okay.
Don insists that he is fine and not at all like the rest of the men in the ward. He even tries to leave, but the door is locked and guarded. Don’s nurse, Bim, has seen and heard it all before. Bim (Frank Faylen) is cynical and a little creepy. He points out certain patients and tells Don how that one has been coming to the ward for decades, and that one hardly ever leaves, and that one gets terrible delirium tremens, or DTs, at night. Don insists that he is different; he’s not like these other alcoholics and he’ll never return to the ward. Bim replies:
That night, the DTs start, just as Bim promised. It’s horrifying. Two patients start screaming and try to escape their hallucinations. In all the confusion, Don steals a doctor’s overcoat, evades the security, and slips out into the night in his slippers.
Fun fact: in preparation for this role, Milland worked out a deal with some doctors and was admitted to Bellevue so he could see what it was like. He actually did escape, just like Don, in the midst of DT chaos. But a cop stopped him, noticed the Bellevue pajamas, and took him back to the hospital. He didn’t believe that the escaped patient was really Ray Milland researching a role!
Billy Wilder heard about Milland’s “research” and arranged to shoot these scenes on location in the Bellevue drunk ward where Milland had masqueraded as a patient. But the Hospital was furious at how negatively it was depicted in the film, and refused to let other productions film there. When Director George Seaton asked if he could shoot scenes for Miracle on 34th Street (1947) at Bellevue “The hospital manager practically threw me out because he was still mad at himself for having given Wilder permission to shoot at the hospital.”
It’s rather early in the morning, and Don walks towards a church. Has he decided to look to God for help? No, he’s just going to wait on the church steps for the liquor store across the street to open.
When it finally does, Don is inside before the owner even has time to remove his coat. He tells the man he needs that bottle of rye, and he’s going to take it, no matter what. The stunned man hands it over, and Don, who has reached yet another low, walks home with his bottle. We thought that his experience in the drunk ward might have been the catalyst he needed to quit, but we were mistaken.
Meanwhile, poor Helen is sleeping on the stairs outside of Don’s apartment. She hasn’t given up on him. The landlady starts telling Helen about the hopelessness of Don’s situation, and how Helen should go find another beau. Don will always treat her horribly because his real love is booze.
But Helen still believes he can get better. I think at this point the audience sides with the landlady, though. Although we pity Don, we’ve just watched him do some terrible things, and we sort of hate him for treating Helen and his brother this way.
Helen goes home and so just misses Don’s arrival. He doesn’t even remove the stolen coat or his hospital pajamas before he settles himself in his chair and begins emptying the stolen bottle. It’s the third night in a row.
Don had told Bim that he never had the DTs, but tonight he gets them, and they’re awful. He hallucinates a mouse creeping out of a hole in the wall. He thinks it is cute until a bat flies in through the window and begins attacking the mouse. The theremin provides creepy accompaniment. It’s a terrifying scene, a true nightmare complete with blood pouring down the wall.
Don’s screams wake the landlady, who calls Helen. She rushes over, and the janitor uses his master key to open the door. Even as Helen is desperately trying to get in, Don is trying just as desperately to fasten the door’s chain to keep her out.
But Helen slides in just before Don gets the chain in place. She’s never seen Don so bad before.
But she takes control, running a bath, helping him shave, and fixing him some food. Then they both fall asleep (Helen on the couch, of course.) Early the next morning, Helen wakes up to see Don leaving the apartment with her leopard coat. She quickly gets dressed and catches up to him as he leaves a pawn shop empty handed.
He pawned her coat.
Helen is devastated. Not to lose the coat, although it is her very favorite thing. No, she’s distraught because if Don can sink that low and pawn her coat, the thing that brought them together in the first place, and something that he knows she loves, then maybe there is no hope for him. Wick was right; Don loves the bottle more than he can ever love her. Also, it’s raining, just to make everything worse.
Helen tells him she is done. She’s not going to fight for him anymore. She asks for the pawn ticket so she can at least get her coat back, but he refuses and leaves her standing in the rain.
Helen goes into the shop to try to buy her coat back. When she asks how much the man gave Don for it, he tells her that he didn’t pay Don anything. Instead, Don exchanged the coat for a gun that he had pawned years ago. Oh, dear.
Helen rushes back to his apartment. She’s just in time, too.
When Don answers the door, Helen pretends she is just there to borrow a coat for her walk home. But she searches the apartment and sees the gun in the sink. She grabs it, and begs Don to reconsider.
Helen even pours Don a drink, egging him on with “I know you want it” taunts because she thinks that maybe if he starts drinking again he’ll forget about the suicide. She’ll do anything, even beg him to drink, to save his life. It’s yet another poignant, tragic scene.
Then Nat arrives with Don’s typewriter, which he found after Don fell down the stairs. He has brought it back in the hopes that Don can finally write that novel.
Helen takes this as a sign. Don can’t give up yet! He can still get better, and he can still write his novel.
She grabs the title page of “The Bottle” and tells him he can do it! He couldn’t before because he didn’t know the ending, but now he does. She believes that this “lost weekend” was the final, and darkest, chapter in his struggle, but he has come out the other side and can finally write his story.
But Don is afraid. He says that “The Bottle” was going to be about all the “nightmares, horrors, humiliations,” all the things he wants to forget. He’s not sure he can do it, and he’s not sure he wants to relive his worst moments.
But Helen tells him to write it down, and exorcise it that way. Write everything that happened this weekend “to whom it may concern,” she says, and “It concerns so many people, Don.”
She goes to make coffee and watches Don think. He picks up the drink she poured him earlier, and stares at it in his hand. Helen watches from the kitchen, and we hold our breath with her. Then Don drops his cigarette into the glass, and we smile with Helen.
The camera pans back over the skyline of New York City as Don’s voice intones the first lines of his novel. The weekend is over, and Don’s new life has begun.
It’s a happy ending, but Wilder tempered the “all’s well” feeling, noting that “We don’t say that the man is cured. We just try to suggest that if he can lick his illness long enough to put some words down on paper, then there must be some hope.”
Apparently Billy Wilder was interested in directing this film after working with author Raymond Chandler on the screenplay for Double Indemnity (1944). Chandler’s alcoholism re-surfaced in a big way when he and Wilder adapted James M. Cain’s novel to the screen, and Wilder watched him fall apart. Then he made this movie, in part to try “to explain Chandler to himself.”
The Lost Weekend was one of the first films to treat drinking not as a harmless pastime (The Thin Man, anyone?) nor as comic relief, but seriously and even pathologically. The timing was unfortunately perfect, as the film was released in November 1945 as American soldiers who had witnessed unimaginable horrors returned home and tried to get back to normal lives. Many turned to alcohol, but there were very few honest depictions of alcoholism at the time. The timing makes it extra-poignant when Helen tells Don that he must write his experiences because “It concerns so many people.” Don was definitely not alone in his struggles in 1945.
Unsurprisingly, this movie was controversial. Oddly enough, some temperance unions accused the film of encouraging alcohol use. And on the other side, the liquor industry did not want this movie released and lobbied Paramount not to make it nor show it. Even some in Hollywood didn’t think this film was appropriate entertainment. And after a disastrous preview showing, Paramount even considered canceling the film’s release.
The audience at the preview reportedly found the film very funny, which is not at all the reaction the filmmakers wanted. According to TCM, Wilder remembered that the preview audience “laughed from the beginning. They laughed when Birnam’s brother found the bottle outside the window, they laughed when he emptied the whiskey into the sink.”
Preview cards were negative, with one patron writing that the movie was great, but that the “stuff about drinking and alcoholism” should be removed…Wilder said that one audience member walked out, remarking, “I’ve sworn off. Never again.” The man was asked, “You’ll never drink again?” “No, I’ll never see another picture again,” he answered.
Paramount decided to try to “fix” the film, and Wilder and Brackett told Rozsa to re-work the score. Rozsa thought that the temporary score that had accompanied the preview was the major reason for the negative reactions. It was Gershwin-esque, whereas Rozsa’s theremin-heavy score went in another direction, and made sure no one was laughing.
After those tweaks, the movie premiered to outstanding reviews. Even the liquor industry got on board when it was clear that the movie was a success.
Seagrams produced an ad praising the film while simultaneously attempting to salvage alcohol’s reputation during the Oscar campaign: “Paramount has succeeded in burning into the hearts and minds of all who see this vivid screen story our own long-held and oft-published belief that…some men should not drink!, which might well have been the name of this great picture instead of The Lost Weekend.”
The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Actor, Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It won those four, but lost Best Score, Best Editing, and Best Cinematography.
To honor Wilder and Brackett after their big wins, some of their colleagues mischievously hung liquor bottles from the windows of their offices at Paramount. But Milland’s extraordinary performance and Oscar win had more serious, and annoying, consequences.
After this movie was released, poor Milland became the poster boy for alcoholism, despite his own modest drinking habits. His performance in the film was so incredible that people tended to confuse the actor with the character. For many years, Milland was approached by people who wanted to buy him drinks and get him drunk the way Don Birnam had. Or alcoholics would come to him for help!
Milland also became a punchline: in My Favorite Brunette (1947), Bob Hope finds a hidden bottle of alcohol and jokes, “Ray Milland’s been here.” That same year, a Bugs Bunny cartoon entitled Slick Hare featured Ray Milland sitting at a bar and using his typewriter as payment, just as he tried to do at Nat’s bar. But the animated bartender accepts the typewriter and gives Milland tiny typewriters as change! You can watch it here, beginning at 1: 15.
Crowther’s review of this “stark and terrifying” film includes praise for Wilder and Brackett, as well as Milland and Wyman: “The film’s most commendable distinction is that it is a straight objective report, unvarnished with editorial comment or temperance morality. And yet the ill of alcoholism and the pathos of its sufferers are most forcefully exposed and deeply pitied, thanks also to the playing of Ray Milland. Mr. Milland, in a splendid performance, catches all the ugly nature of a ‘drunk,’ yet reveals the inner torment and degradation of a respectable man who knows his weakness and his shame. Jane Wyman assumes with quiet authority the difficult role of the loyal girl who loves and assists the central character—and finally helps regenerate him. (This climactic touch is somewhat off key—like the “cute” way in which the two meet—but it has the advantage of relieving an intolerable emotional strain.)”
Crowther’s words still ring true seventy years later. The Lost Weekend remains an incredible film with amazing performances. It is a sensitive, painful, raw, provocative look at Don and his disease. Here’s the trailer–enjoy! And ponder.
* Thank you, Professor Robisheaux at Duke for this phrase.