Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Celebrating Sobriety

Today, June 8, 2016, I am celebrating 7 years, clean and sober.  Through the help of God, and a group of friends of Bill W., I have been able to lead a successful life, happy with my life in whatever direction it leads.

In celebration of that recovery I present a movie which I never saw when I was still drinking.  Whether this movie might have deterred me earlier from my path if I had seen it at an earlier age, is impossible to say. But in retrospect it is a rather profound example of the lengths I personally went to in order to maintain my previous lifestyle.

The lovable drunk, as portrayed in countless movies (including the previously reviewed Harvey), is nowhere to be seen in The Lost Weekend.  This is a harsh look at the effects that the last stages of alcoholism can have on a man.  Billy Wilder's look at five days (it's a really long weekend...) in the life of Don Birnam is startling and eye-opening.  Up until this point, most alcoholics were the subject of comic relief in movies, or as comical aspects of serious matters.  (See The Thin Man. which depicted a virtually always inebriated couple who solved crimes as a side adventure).  Such was the stark seriousness of the subject of this movie, however, that, according to historical notes I found, the alcohol industry wanted to buy up all the prints and prevent it's release.

Wilder originally wanted Jose Ferrer for the role, but he turned it down.  Ray Milland stepped into the role, playing against type from previous roles, and put on an Oscar winning performance.  It also took home statuettes for Wilder for Best Director, as well as Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. The realistic view of alcoholism opened up new avenues to approach the harshness of drug and alcohol addiction in movies to come.  In particular were Days of Wine and Roses and The Man with the Golden Arm, both of which dealt realistically with the problem of addiction without sugar-coating it.

The Lost Weekend (1945)

As the movie starts, we are looking in on Don Birnam (Ray Milland) and his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) are packing for a weekend trip.  Unbeknownst to Wick and Don's girlfriend, Helen (JaneWyman), Don's ruse of having gone "on the wagon" for 10 days at this point is just that... a ruse.  He actually has a bottle hidden, hanging outside his bedroom window.  He tries to convince Wick and Helen to go to a concert, saying they can take a later train for the trip.

Wick, Don and Helen

Wick discovers Don's hidden bottle and pours it out.  Don indignantly swears he had forgotten it was there, and threatens to back out of the weekend trip if Wick doesn't trust him.  Wick and Helen reluctantly go to the concert leaving Don alone.  Don desperately searches the apartment for any hidden bottles (the true sign of an alcoholic), but apparently Wick has found them all.  While searching, the cleaning lady comes by.  Don won't let her in, and she unknowingly reveals a hidden $10 in the sugar bowl, that was to be used to pay for her services.  He dismisses her and steals the money.

Money stashed

Don takes the money and buys two quart bottles at the liquor store [he buys the cheap stuff, all the more so he can have more to drink] and on the way home stops of at Nat's bar to drink a few shots.  (Imagine that... he has a stash of bottles and still goes to the bar.)  There he converses with Nat (Howard da Silva),  the bartender.  Gloria (Doris Dowling), a barfly and probably a call girl, flirts with him, but he has more important things on his table (the shots of whiskey).

Don, Gloria and Nat
Don eventually stumbles back to his apartment where, waiting for him, are Wick and Helen.  Wick is finally disgusted with his brother and leaves for the weekend alone.  Helen has to stay in town because she has to go to work over the weekend. Wick urges Helen to leave Don to his own devices and move on, but Helen really loves Don.  Meanwhile, Don locks himself in his apartment, hides one of the bottles in the light fixture and sits down to enjoy the second bottle.

The next day Don finds a desperate note from Helen on his door, but ignores it.  He goes down to Nat's for a drink.  Nat tries to discourage him, but Don really has the itch for a drink. "I can't cut it short," he tells Nat. "I'm on that merry-go-round.  You gotta ride it all the way.  Round and round until that blasted music wears itself out and the thing dies down and comes to a stop,"

On the merry-go-round

Don makes a date with Gloria to go out on the town, but Nat berates him because he knows Don is just talking and is leading her on.  Don counters with a pipe dream that he has an idea for a novel.  (Don is a struggling writer who is suffering from writer's block, which he uses to justify his drinking).  We are then led into a story which is part autobiographical about how Don met Helen and tried to cover up his drinking for a while.

As the weekend passes on, alternately Don discovers he has no more booze (he forgot where he hid the other bottle and thinks he drank it and then forgot about having drank it.)  As a last ditch effort he decides to try to pawn his typewriter.  But unable to find a pawn shop open, he becomes desperate and goes to Nat to try to get some booze on the house.  He also goes to Gloria's place to mooch money from her.  He falls down the stairs as he is leaving and wakes up in an alcoholic ward, where he was sent to dry out.  He sees a couple of patients going through some extremely horrific D.T.s.

Bed rest?  I don't think so.

Don meets a male nurse, Bim (Frank Faylen) who basically gives him no hope of a future, that he will eventually die a sad alcoholic death.  Don escapes from the ward while the nurses are distracted.  He makes it back to his apartment, and after a desperate search, eventually finds the bottle he had hidden a few days before.  He sits down to drink the bottle and passes out.  When he comes to he has a horrific D.T. of his own in which he sees a struggle between a mouse and a bat.  Warning:  if you have made it this far, this scene is NOT for the squeamish, but it does illustrate and important change in Don's life.

D.T.s from Hell

The movie ends on a positive note.  We are left with the impression that Don has reached his bottom and is determined to leave the alcohol behind.  He has discovered his muse again, in the persona of Helen.  The love of a good woman, as only 1940's Hollywood could have told it.  But it does give hope for us all.  If Don can kick the habit, surely there is hope for the rest of us.

Hope you enjoyed this tour down this dark alley.  Here's to another year! *raises a piping hot cup of coffee in salute*.



  1. Congratulations on that achievement, Quiggy. Well done! And thank you for your great essay on this amazing film, my all-time favorite Ray Milland performance. Yes, the movie is dark, but it is an engrossing story with a universal theme that still resonates.

    1. Thanks. I find this movie incredible because I did some of the same things (although not all in one weekend.)


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