I do not particularly like the taste of alcohol or beer. I never needed booze to loosen me up at a social gathering. I am naturally talkative, and I have to say I am happier being “in control.” I have learned over the years that I am what you would call a “cheap date.” One drink, and I am usually buzzed. Two, I have been known to dance on tables and bar countertops without remembering a thing. This was not safe for me as a young woman. The “angels” protecting me must have had their hands full when I went out dancing each weekend. It took me time and maturity to realize drinking was not for me. And I have never looked back with envy. I have an addictive personality for Teddy Grahams and Trader Joe’s Cat Cookies. I can’t ever eat just one, so I swore them off years ago. I married a man with an addictive personality, but he has been sober since 2014. I am very proud of him and his choices every day. I am sharing these tidbits of info because of my classic selection this week.

I have watched this film several times, gaining a better understanding of a disease that afflicts millions. Talented, kind, caring, smart people who cannot say no and always need “another drink” to get through their day. They have no control. No ability to realize when they have had enough. I have taught hundreds of students who were, at the time,  obviously on the path to becoming an alcoholic. I have seen some of my friends’ marriages destroyed by this addiction. Sometimes violently. Alcoholism is a terrible disease, but in 1945, little was known about how to find the “cure.” THE LOST WEEKEND turned Hollywood upside down with the realization of what heavy drinking can do. This film brought a very taboo topic out into the light of day. 

Paramount Pictures took a significant chance on producing THE LOST WEEKEND. They were offered five million dollars from the alcohol industry not to release it. The first preview group who watched the movie laughed throughout most of the drunken moments. They said on their comment card “to take out the scenes dealing with booze.” Billy Wilder, the director, found the original book, written by Charles R. Jackman while picking up some reading material in an airport gift shop. The book’s title was supposed to be THE LAST WEEKEND, but it had already gone to print. I wonder if that would have made a difference. 

Ray Milland took on this role, doubting he could ever pull it off. He needed to look gaunt, so he went on an extreme diet of only eating dry toast, coffee, and eggs. He tried to get drunk but ended up over the toilet each time. He even checked into Belvue’s alcohol ward overnight to see what it was like. It was so bad with the screaming and DTs, Ray tried to escape in the middle of the night like the character he portrayed, Don Birnam. He was caught and dragged back to Belvue. It took thirty more minutes to finally release the actor. 

THE LOST WEEKEND is a simple story about one man’s battle against the bottle. It clearly shows the desperation, despair, and deliberate spirals of an alcoholic. Lying, cheating, and stealing is all part of the routine. This film also includes the theme of love between a man who has no control and a woman who loves him and can’t stop trying to save him. Jane Wyman plays Helen who constantly is there for her man. She won’t give up on him and this makes a huge difference to the conclusion. I don’t agree with the Hollywood ending, but I do understand the need for hope against this insidious affliction. It does, in a small way, begin AA’s theory of “one day at a time.”

There were many moments when viewers watched Don drink and destroy himself without dialogue. Instead, we listened to the magnificent, ethereal score of Miklos Rozsa. THE LOST WEEKEND would not have been as successful without those eerie sounds. The locations and cinematography also added to believe the depths of delirium and darkness. Edith Head was Costume Designer and went on to win Oscar after Oscar for her work. 

The best chemistry in this movie was between Ray Melland’s shots and his booze bottles. “Give me another” was his mantra. Sixteen alone in one scene alone. He was able to take audiences on this terrible journey, and yet we still liked him and rooted for him to get to the other side. We watched his agony and his holy terrors. Ray was mesmerizing and compelling. He was a consummate actor who dared to peel layer after layer away and let audiences glimpse his bare soul. Truly an amazing performance.

THE LOST WEEKEND is a sordid, magnificent story that sheds light on the darkest corners of alcoholism. It is a brilliant masterpiece of filming. It allowed audiences over seventy years ago to find the truth and a healing path to recovery. It showcased humanity’s humiliation without the glitz. Truthful, honest, and raw. Ray Millan imbued the very soul of his character and made this classic a classic for all time. 

THE LOST WEEKEND is available on TCM. 

Esta Rosevear

Esta Rosevear has been a Theatre Arts teacher and director for 35+ years, published Children’s author of the Rebecca series, and is passionate about playing her violin, walking, gardening, and reading murder mysteries.

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