Billy Wilder Takes It Seriously

The Alcoholic as Addict . Ray Milland The Lost Weekend © 1945 Paramount Pictures. Credit: © 1945 Paramount Pictures / Courtesy Pyxurz.

When Billy Wilder first previewed The Lost Weekend audiences howled with laughter.

Wilder was upset but probably not surprised. He and his collaborator Charles Brackett knew they were fighting an uphill battle made even more difficult by the film industry they worked in. Seeing it on the screen over and over again portrayed in the same manner had conditioned audiences. There was no other way for them to react.

Movie goers may have been programmed but just for a moment in that darkened theater the real world they lived in got them to stop laughing. Wilder and Brackett gave people something they were well aware of but not used to seeing. What they saw was an unflinching no holds barred look into the life of an alcoholic. Not comedy but addiction.

An Epidemic

On December 5th 1933 the United States Congress ratified the twenty first amendment thereby repealing the nationwide ban on alcohol. The experiment to legislate morality had by and large failed and the consequences were in some instances quite disastrous. However given the circumstances it’s no wonder many people felt it was worth the effort.

Getting rid of this…
Led to more of that

People drank in the 1800’s. A lot.  Some of it was out of necessity. In certain parts of the country water was unfit for consumption. Liquor was considered your best and only bet.

But so much of it had nothing to do with environmental issues and everything to do with sheer want. Way too many Americans were drinking to excess and in the process extracting a heavy toll by way of broken homes, verbal and physical abuse, skyrocketing unemployment, public rowdiness, vagrancy and to top it all off a full blown health crisis. Something had to be done and soon

The Temperance movement was only one of many reform movements that were sweeping the United States. Everything from creating institutions for the needy and disabled to women’s rights, abolishing  slavery, abolishing debtors prisons, health reform humane treatment of Native Americans, education reform, better pay and working conditions.

Women were the backbone of the temperance movement mainly because they bore the brunt of alcoholism’s effects.

It all seemed to be a part of the Second Great Awakening. The power of the individual to move masses and affect change. Temperance didn’t stamp out drinking completely but it did a decent job of curbing the excess and at least starting to change the mindset.

Whatever momentum the Temperance Movement had ended with the Civil War. Americans by the 1870′ s were back to drinking at epidemic levels. In response individuals, businesses and organizations across the board came together in order to stem the tide. While there were places that passed ordinances and many people took the pledge it wasn’t enough.

If temperance was an issue of national importance than something had to be done at the highest levels.

And something was done. Thanks to the Anti-Saloon League.


Howard Hyde Russell had a different idea. He built an organization that specialized in a new kind of persuasion. One that used mass media of the day among other tactics to drive home to politicians at whatever level a single point: The Temperance Movement was not only back but more powerful than ever.

The father of modern day pressure politics Wayne B. Wheeler

And nobody personified that more than the Anti-Saloon-League’s defacto leader. Wayne Wheeler

Wayne B. Wheeler controlled six congresses, dictated to two presidents of the United States, directed legislation in most of the States of the Union, picked the candidates for the more important elective state and federal offices, held the balance of power in both Republican and Democratic parties, distributed more patronage than any dozen other men, supervised a federal bureau from outside without official authority, and was recognized by friend and foe alike as the most masterful and powerful single individual in the United States.”

Wheeler had in effect created pressure politics and after using it in to unseat the governor of Ohio countless lawmakers at the state and federal levels wanted no parts of  it.

Which meant by 1920 passing the 18th amendment was a foregone conclusion. Finally the Temperance Movement had achieved a national victory.

Pressure politics in action. The Anti-Saloon League used the mass mass media of the day to power their agenda.

The Elephant Has A Friend

Although the 18th amendment banned the sale, manufacturing and transportation of alcohol it did allow purchasing and consumption. Yet even if it had included these it would not have mattered.

While Prohibition was still in its early stages one of the giants of American journalism H.L. Mencken wrote what most Americans already knew or were at least starting to realize.

“Five years of Prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.”

If the Anti-Saloon League thought they were going to get help from Hollywood of the twenties they were sadly mistaken.

The Roaring Twenties was a radical departure from the past but it came with the same old thirst for alcohol. If people couldn’t buy it they’d make it. If they couldn’t do that then bootleggers but more importantly organized crime would step in to fill the void.

Speakeasies, roadhouses, behind the barn it didn’t matter. Worried about getting caught? Go to another jurisdiction or buy a flask. Alcohol good or bad remained plentiful during Prohibition. Repeal was an excuse to celebrate what was already being done.

What got lost in the festivities were the devastating effects alcohol was still having on individuals, families and communities.

Hollywood didn’t help matters with not only their focus on the comical aspects of alcohol but also showing movie stars living the high life (at least on screen). The images were ingrained in movie goers with a clear message. Alcohol meant forgetting your troubles and having a good time.

But no matter what play it for laughs

Putting Names To The Faces

Charles Jackson knew otherwise. He had battling his own personal demons ever since his youth. Prime among them was alcohol. He wasn’t a cold statistic on paper or a clown to be mocked and laughed at. Jackson like so many others was a person in undeniable pain.

“I couldn’t get outside of myself.” Writer Charles Jackson

In the mid 1940’s Jackson decided to perform his own exorcism. Not with a priest but the tools of his trade: a pen paper and typewriter. At the end of his story the demons unfortunately were still there but he had produced a master work. It would be the crowning achievement in a career and life filled with despair.

Published in 1944 it told the story of Don Birnam (Charles Jackson) a struggling writer that goes on a five day bender. Along the way he oftentimes with shocking and unsettling honesty exposes his soul for all the world to see. The end of the story is bleak. The author makes it clear that Birnam is not going to stop drinking.

“He sat down on the edge of the bed and began to drink… he filled the glass again, set it on the floor by the bed and crawled in”

Jackson’s words spoke for so many people past and present who suffer from alcohol and drug addiction. They know it’s tearing them apart as well as those around them. They try everything in order to break free but just like Don Birnam they convince themselves there is no way out. Jackson titled his story The Lost Weekend. It would become a runaway best seller.

No Question

Billy Wilder pacing with cane. Charles Brackett on the couch apparently defending himself from a possible attack. Brackett and Wilder at this point were the hottest writing team in Hollywood

By 1944 Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett were in the zone. Their personalities were so disparate that you wondered how they could even work together. Yelling and screaming? Check. Throwing things at each other? Check. Vowing never to work together again? That too.

So what was the key to their success? Probably because they were such opposites but Charles Brackett himself may have provided the best insight.

“He has humor — a kind of humor that sparks with mine.”

It may have been the glue that kept them together but whatever the reason they hung in there the Brackett-Wilder partnership changed the cultural landscape of American cinema. 12 tumultuous years that saw them go from writing Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife and Ninotchka for Ernst Lubitsch to gaining their own autonomy within the studio system at Paramount. A feat very few would achieve.

They used that autonomy in convincing Paramount to purchase the rights of The Lost Weekend and set about working on the screenplay. Upon completion they felt that in many respects they had improved on the novel. Jackson agreed and confessed that Bracket and Wilder had “thought of things I wish I had thought of first – they were that good.”

Part of the being that good was the two men were very familiar with the subject matter. Wilder from witnessing it during his scuffle around days in Europe.

With Brackett it struck closer to home. In fact it was in his home. His wife Elizabeth and daughter were alcoholics. Brackett was from an upper crust background. Elizabeth even more so which only proved that addiction was and is no respecter of persons regardless of status.

The team knew they had something special yet now came the question of who was to play Don Birnam. Wilder wanted a young actor currently making a mark on Broadway as Iago opposite Paul Robeson’s Othello but Paramount executives nixed the idea of having a still widely unknown actor named Jose Ferrer step in as the lead on a major movie production.

Instead Paramount felt the best way to get people into the theater was to choose someone whom they were already familiar with. For Brackett and Wilder it turned out to be someone who they were already acquainted. An actor who had starred in Wilder’s directorial debut The Major and The Minor three years before. Ray Milland.

An Actor Prepares

Ray Milland and the love of his life Muriel. It was Muriel who convinced her husband to play the part of Don Birnam.

Ray Milland was a leading man at Paramount with over a decade of experience in film. But nothing in his resume came close to the challenge he was about to face. A challenge the actor himself did not think he was up to.

He specialized in comedies and light dramas. The Lost Weekend was going to be none of these things and he knew it. Reading the book made him believe even more that studio execs were barking up the wrong tree

His life partner Muriel Francis Weber thought differently and talked her husband into giving it a go. Milland did his homework as well as transforming himself physically for the role. By the time principal photography began he was ready.

The opening sequence is a masterpiece of direction, camerawork and writing. But above all acting. Birnam is looking for a way out. Out in this instance means getting a hold of that bottle he’s cleverly hidden outside his window.

The quiet nervousness, the looks at the window, the explosion of energy when his brother leaves the room. Panic when he can’t get it loose and the fake normalcy when his brother comes back. All of it wrapped in anger and impatience because he can’t do what he truly wants to do.

It was all there. Every addict regardless of substance knew the drill. Every person who had been drawn into the world of the addict had seen this routine over and over.

Look for it, check all the hiding places and when there is none to be found depression so profound that it literally makes you want to kill yourself. It’s just not humanly possible to live without it. Until…

Then euphoria part one. Not that you have the drink in your hand but knowing you’re going to get it.

So what’s it like for an addict when they’re feeling good about their addiction

Yep. Everything is better about you when you’re under the influence. You solve the world’s problems with a snap of the fingers. It’s not true but all sense of proportion is blurred beyond recognition.

The only thing that matters for the addict is being alone with their addiction. It kills them and brings them to life all in one breath. Getting outside of yourself becomes virtually impossible.

The thrill of the high. Screen capture. © 1945 Paramount Pictures. Credit: © 1945 Paramount Pictures / Courtesy Pyxurz.

But like any monkey on your back growing into a two ton gorilla there’s a price to be paid. Birnam’s penance is a descent into the abyss. That includes losing everything and almost everybody, terrifying hallucinations and trips to the sanitarium where he meets a sadistic attendant (Frank Faylen in a brilliantly scary performance) who tells him there’s no way out and that he better get used to the “postcards”.

The madness full blown. Birnam reacts to his hallucination.

About That Ending

Over the years Brackett and Wilder have received criticism for what many considered a classic Hollywood copout. As noted previously Jackson’s novel ends in darkness. Birnam will continue drinking until the priest gives him the last rites.

Brackett and Wilder gave the audience hope albeit a confusing one. Artistically they didn’t have a choice. Wilder couldn’t show this nightmare world without at some point taking his foot off the accelerator.

He understood moviegoers wanted to believe there was light at the end of the tunnel. That through his own desperation and the love of a woman who could not bring herself to give up on him that someway somehow he was going to beat this thing. The fact he started to write again was a major triumph.

But we don’t get off that easy. There’s no smiling and confident Don merrily typing away while his happy and relived girlfriend looks on as the credits roll.

Sorry this is Billy Wilder we’re talking about here. Instead the camera returns to that window. As it backs away you notice the string is still there. This is a powerful because it tells the audience we don’t know the future. Maybe he quits maybe not. It’s a visually ambiguous statement. Little things mean a lot

For his portrayal as Don Bierman Ray Milland would walk away with the Best Actor Oscar of 1945. The film would win Best Picture and Screenplay as well as an Oscar for Billy Wilder’s direction.

Kudos as well to Jane Wyman. This was her breakout role as well and in a curious way her character is an addict also. Call it love, selfishness or wanting to see something though to the end but she’s as addicted to Don as he is to alcohol. She tells him off in the pouring rain then later on comes back for more.

Philip Terry is okay as Milland’s brother and Doris Dowling has a nice turn as Gloria; Don’s prostitute friend and drinking buddy although they make it clear she handles her alcohol a lot better than he does.

Then there’s Howard Da Silva. He is amazing as Nat the bartender. Nat is Birnam’s drug dealer. Looking at him one minute with disgust, pity, anger and a certain professional curiosity. He advises Birnam to quit as he pours him another drink. Da Silva’s performance reminds me in some ways of illustrator Frank Beard’s Fifteen Minutes With the Barkeeper

Also kudos to cinematographer John Seitz and composer Miklos Roza. It’s Roza’s eerie use of the theremin that adds considerably to the story. In the next decade the theremin would become a staple of science fiction and horror films.

While the comedic drunk did not disappear (it became a staple of television throughout the fifties and well into the seventies) a landmark had been established. It was the start of a change of attitude. Hollywood was going to eventually take alcoholism seriously.

One film arguably did more to change the mindset of the entire country than all the laws and sermonizing which had gone before. If the Temperance Movement wanted real lasting success then it appears all they had to do was wait for Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder.



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