‘The Lost Weekend’ and the Maverick Decision to Tackle Alcoholism in a Mainstream Picture

Brackett worked with Wilder on no less than 13 films in the period between 1936 and 1950, during which time he wrote numerous classics such as Ninotchka, A Foreign Affair and Sunset Boulevard, which means this is one of the most fruitful and successful collaborations in Hollywood history. Here, the duo are working on The Lost Weekend. Courtesy of the Estate of Charles W. Brackett, Columbia University

They thought of things I wish I had thought of first—they were that good, commented Charles Jackson on Billy Wilder’s screen adaptation of his novel The Lost Weekend. The 1945 film noir drama about a writer struggling with alcoholism was an accomplished work of art in many ways, not the least of which was the precise and significant timing of its release. It was the end of the war; people were coming home to their families, jobs and civilian life in general unable to let go of the horror they had witnessed on the battlefield. Many of those troubled souls sought refuge in a bottle, and Wilder’s film was the first mainstream studio project that put that specific problem to the fore, shining the spotlight all over the problem of drinking, so far used in movies only as subplots of often comic effects. There’s nothing funny in The Lost Weekend. It’s dark, realistic, very passionate at the task of portraying the seriousness of this illness. Most likely the strongest card in Wilder’s hand was the fact that he aptly showed that extremely difficult, hard-to-digest subjects did in fact have a place in mainstream film industry.

The film, shot by cinematographer and influential inventor John F. Seitz, was hardly a success at the preview screenings. One of the most obvious problems of this first cut was the music, which is why composer Miklos Rozsa was handed the job of creating an experimental score for the film, making use of an electronic instrument called the theremin and creating the perfectly disturbing music to accompany the main character’s chaotic state of mind. The character in question was played expertly by Raymond Milland, and just to show how much of a maverick decision it was to film this in the first place, we’ll say that the only reason he got the role, instead of Jose Ferrer, was the studio’s insistence that a film about such a controversial subject should be led by an acknowledged actor or the audience wouldn’t even give it a chance. The Lost Weekend was penned by Wilder and Charles Brackett, who also served as the producer. Brackett worked with Wilder on no less than 13 films in the period between 1936 and 1950, during which time he wrote numerous classics such as Ninotchka, A Foreign Affair and Sunset Boulevard, which means this is one of the most fruitful and successful collaborations in Hollywood history. The Lost Weekend even today stands as a cinematic wonder. Considering the time in which it saw the light of day, its power and influence grows even more.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder’s screenplay for The Lost Weekend; from the novel by Charles R. Jackson [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray (Masters of Cinema) of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
Wilder got his chance with Lubitsch in 1936, when Paramount assigned him to work with Charles Brackett, a more experienced writer, on Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife. Brackett, fourteen years Wilder’s senior, was a novelist and a gent. He was Harvard Law, class of 1920, and had been a drama critic for The New Yorker. When Lubitsch moved to MGM, he hired the pair to work on Ninotchka. Seven Brackett-Wilder scripts were shot before Wilder started directing; later, Brackett produced the pictures that he and Wilder wrote together. During the Brackett era, Wilder’s scriptwriting methods were established. While Brackett, like all Wilder’s partners to come, jotted notes, Wilder paced the room, gesturing with a swagger stick or a baton, slicing the air. Brackett’s boozy Republican gentility was often at odds with Wilder’s brash ambition. Wilder was the junior man but the more forceful personality. The partners were known for their screaming matches as well as for their scripts. “We were opposites, from different parts of the world,” Wilder recalls. “Our temperaments had to be held in check. We fought a lot. Brackett and I were like a box of matches. We kept striking till it lights up. He would sometimes throw a telephone book at me.” They walked out on each other several times, each vowing to go it alone. But, like a couple in a marriage that doesn’t quite work but won’t quite end, they kept at it, locked in productivity and combat, and came to be known as BrackettandWilder. —From a wonderful profile of Billy Wilder that David Freeman wrote for The New Yorker in 1993

Earlier that spring, director Billy Wilder had bought ‘The Lost Weekend’ at a kiosk in Chicago, and by the time his train arrived in Los Angeles he’d read it twice and quite definitely decided to make a movie based on the book, despite its then controversial subject: an alcoholic, as opposed to a comic drunkard or lush. “Not only did I know it was going to make a good picture,” said Wilder, “I also knew that the guy who was going to play the drunk was going to get the Academy Award.” —Weekend in the Sun

BILLY WILDER ABOUT FILM NOIR

Billy Wilder’s career stretches back to the late 1920s, when he collaborated on the scripts for several films made in Germany, including the classic semi-documentary People on Sunday (1929). When Hitler came into power, Wilder fled to France and eventually ended up in America. He soon overcame his limited knowledge of the English language and began work in Hollywood, contributing to the screenplays for Ernst Lubitsh’s Ninotchka (1939) and Howard Hawks’s Ball of Fire (1941). He directed his first American film in 1942, The Major and the Minor, and two years later he directed one of the seminal noir films, Double Indemnity (1944). While Wilder’s career would become strongly identified with comedies such as Some Like It Hot (1958) and The Apartment (1960), his career has also included several dramas about the darker aspects of life, such as The Lost Weekend (1945), for which he won an Academy Award, and Sunset Boulevard (1950).

Wilder’s directed only a handful of noir films, but those films remain milestones of noir theme and style: Double Indemnity (based on a book by James M. Cain and scripted by Raymond Chadler) provides an essential portrait of the femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck) and the insurance investigator (Fred MacMurray) that she lures with sex and convinces to kill her husband; Sunset Boulevard takes us on a lurid journey through the decay surrounding an aged silent film star (Gloria Swanson) and the young screenwriter (William Holden) who stumbles into her web; and Ace in the Hole (1951) pulls us into the carnival-like atmosphere that results when a journalist (Kirk Douglas), with national headlines on his mind, deliberately delays an attempt to rescue a man trapped in a cave. The following interview focuses on these three films as Billy Wilder provides his insights and observations regarding film noir. This interview was conducted by Robert Porfirio in July 1975.

 
The full interview is published in Film Noir Reader 3, edited by Robert Porfirio, Alain Silver, and James Ursini (November 2001; Limelight Editions).

‘BILLY, HOW DID YOU DO IT?’

In 1988, Volker Schlöndorff, the director of The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum and The Tin Drum, brought a camera crew into Billy Wilder’s Los Angeles office. The goal, as Schlöndorff put it, was to record “an improvised conversation between friends.” The special three-hour version of the resulting documentary, Billy, How Did You Do It?, was originally aired on the BBC soon afterward (against Wilder’s wishes). But it had not been publicly shown until Film Forum’s special screening in September, during its run of Schlöndorff’s cut of The Tin Drum. —Billy Wilder in Billy, How Did You Do It?

 
Billy Wilder and Ray Milland shooting The Lost Weekend on location in New York City. Photo credit: Jerry Cooke. Courtesy of LIFE Magazine/Getty Images.

 
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