Billy Wilder, Hollywood director, sauntered into Clarke’s Bar at 55th Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan. A short, stocky man, Wilder took off his favorite fedora and laid it on the mahogany bar. Surprised there were no bar stools, he put his foot on the brass rail as most customers did and ordered a cup of coffee from the round-faced bartender with the Irish brogue. He looked at his own chubby image in the beveled glass mirror opposite him. A calendar hung on a pole nearby; the date was October 15, 1944.
This morning Wilder was to meet Charles Jackson, author of a bestselling novel Lost Weekend, so the two men could discuss the filming of this semi-autobiographical tale. Jackson, a frequenter of Clarke’s Bar, had become alcoholic while a tuberculosis patient in a Swiss sanitarium. After seven years of drinking he began a successful recovery. Lost Weekend featured a New York City alcoholic writer who went on a weekend binge instead of travelling with his brother and girl-friend. A month or so ago Wilder was sitting in a Chicago train station en route from New York City to Los Angeles. He picked up Jackson’s book for sale in the station and read it from cover to cover in two hours.
Arriving in Los Angeles, Wilder, director of the Oscar nominated film, “Double Indemnity,” immediately called his partner, writer Charles Brackett, and asked him to read and evaluate the novel for a screenplay. Brackett had two alcoholics in his family, his wife and his daughter. Wilder was not sure Brackett would want to deal with this subject, but his partner called back within a week with an enthusiastic evaluation and the offer to write the screenplay. Wilder told Brackett he wanted to reduplicate the seriousness of this story. Before this, drunks were simply made fun of in films, such as in the Thin Man series.
While many at Paramount thought Wilder was wrong about his belief in the success of the story, the studio paid author Jackson $50,000 for the rights. One Saturday evening Jackson approached Paddy Clarke and asked if he would allow the saloon to be the setting for the bar scenes in the film. Since Jackson was a good customer Paddy Clarke agreed and was paid a nominal sum by Paramount Studios.
Wilder glanced around the saloon, built in the late nineteenth century. He was pleased by the amount of dark wood, stained by years of alcohol and tobacco. The director realized the darkness gave a gloomy feeling, exactly the atmosphere he wanted to promote in his film. Manhattan was a perfect place; after all, the novel was based here. Wilder’s people had already found a suitable midtown apartment to be used as the home for the main character and were checking out other sites in the script, like the Metropolitan Opera and Bellevue Hospital, as well as assorted rooming houses and restaurants not far from Clarke’s Bar.
Wilder lit up a cigar and looked at the pictures above the bar. Irish heroes faced him, among them Robert Emmet and Michael Collins, and beside them, Abraham Lincoln. Above the bar were also signs with the prices of beer and liquor, side by side with two flags, American and Irish, crossed with each other and next to a framed copy of the Proclamation of Independence from the Irish Easter Uprising of l916. Below these were three tiers of liquor bottles of all sizes, shapes and types.
A man walked through the front mahogany doors with their leaded glass inserts and Wilder took the time to examine him as he sat down at a table covered with a white cotton tablecloth and ordered a beer and a ball from the bartender. Wilder looked at his watch; it was nine o’clock in the morning and realized that the only people in the place were regulars who needed their morning fix. The two bartenders were standing by the side of the bar talking quietly with each other. He heard one of the men tell about his son fighting in the Pacific theatre of war. Wilder shifted positions; standing at the bar had given him a cramp in his leg. Then he heard a loud booming noise coming from Third Avenue. Looking out the front window, he saw an elevated train racing by, making a noise he had not heard since he left Europe a long time ago. Living in the Hollywood hills had spoiled him. Wilder waved his bartender over.
“How often do these trains go by?”
The bartender laughed.
“Oh, at least every fifteen to twenty minutes.”
Wilder slammed down his coffee cup.
“God almighty, why didn’t Jackson tell me? I can’t film here.”
At that moment Charles Jackson entered the 55th Street entrance, known as the ladies entrance. Seeing Wilder, he walked over to his benefactor.
“Mr. Wilder, how was the train ride?”
“That ride was fine, but I don’t like the train sound outside. Why didn’t you tell me about the noise?”
Jackson looked chagrined.
“Wow, I never thought of that – I guess it could be a problem…”
Wilder grew red in the face, but continued.
“The trouble is I really like this saloon; I like the look and feel of the place. It is a perfect setting for our story. By the way, did I tell you the English actor Ray Milland has accepted the part of Don Burnham?”
Charles Jackson was glad Wilder had changed the subject.
Wilder finished off his cup of coffee.
“Milland is the good news. The bad news is the noise of the trains. We could find another saloon, but I’m sold on this one. Let’s take a walk over to Sardi’s. I’ll buy you an early lunch there and we can put our heads together about the train noise.”
Thirty-eight year old Jackson looked relieved.
During their lunch at Sardi’s Wilder returned to the problem of the train noise outside the bar. Jackson kept saying how bad he felt.
“Mr. Wilder, we are so used to that noise that I didn’t give it a thought. Paddy Clarke himself lives above the saloon along with other tenants. They manage to sleep through the night.”
Wilder smashed his cigar into the ashtray.
“I still like the look of the place.”
After a pause Wilder’s eyes lit up.
“That’s it. I’ll have engineers build a facsimile of the bar. Paramount has a good crew of engineers; they can come to New York and study the architecture of the saloon.”
And that is exactly what happened. Paramount Studios built Clarke’s Bar right on their set in Hollywood. In the film the bar’s name was changed from Clarke’s to Nat’s. It was reported that actor Robert Benchley walked daily onto the Hollywood set and ordered a shot of bourbon, just as he would if he were on 55th Street and Third Avenue in New York City.
Filming began immediately and many scenes were shot with hidden cameras after New Yorkers began interrupting the filming to get an autograph from Milland. In his autobiography Milland described his experience making “Lost Weekend.” The actor went on a diet of dry toast, coffee and grapefruit before the filming began in order to appear as a man who forgot to eat and only enjoyed drinking. He lost eight pounds. To further understand the role Milland spent a night in Bellevue psychiatric ward and put on the hospital pajamas and got into bed. Fifteen alcoholic men in the ward gave him a taste of reality. Many had held successful roles in advertising and politics; others were from the Bowery, but all of them had delirium tremens.
. The film “Lost Weekend” appeared in l945 and represented one of the quickest transformations from novel to screenplay in Hollywood history. In England the film was called “The Lost Weekend: A Diary of a Dypsomaniac.” The critics loved it; the movie received Best Picture even though its competition was “Spellbound,” “Bells of St. Mary’s,” Mildred Pierce,” and “Anchors Aweigh.” It also won Best Director and Best Screenplay. The Best Actor award went to Ray Milland for his role as Don Birnham. When he took this part he was advised by his agent that it could be “career suicide.” Billy Wilder, on the other hand, had predicted that whoever played the lead male role would get an Academy Award and he was right on the money. After the Awards night Wilder and Brackett were greeted by liquor bottles dangling from the windows of their Hollywood studio, just like Don Birnham had outside his apartment.
“Lost Weekend” was controversial and could easily have been shelved. Up until its filming Hollywood had shied away from revealing the true nature of alcoholism, but the novel and Billy Wilder’s l945 movie opened up the gates. When Jackson wrote the novel society viewed alcoholism as a reflection of the spiritual weakness of the drunk. In the novel Don Birnham has a deep psychological problem related to homosexuality that the author indicated was at the root of the writer’s addiction. Fearing censorship, the Hollywood producers made Birnham’s frustration as a writer the cause of his alcoholism. The novel and film also anticipated the concept of an “enabler” which was demonstrated by two of the characters around Birnham – his brother Wick and his girlfriend Helen. They are both archetypal examples of the dysfunction that occurs with family and friends of alcoholics as they try to stop the drinking of their loved one.
When the liquor industry heard of Wilder’s film they offered Paramount Studios five million dollars not to release it. Billy Wilder laughingly said he would have accepted the money if offered to him, but Paramount turned the liquor industry down. Ironically, temperance groups also opposed the movie since it showed so much heavy drinking and depicted alcohol conferring transient feelings of superiority, clarity and creativity, which could make drinking enticing to young people. Despite the temperance groups’ initial opposition to the film, the “Lost Weekend” was judged an important public message movie about the addiction of alcohol. Birnham himself says to the bartender: “It shrinks my liver, doesn’t it, Nat? It pickles my kidney, yea. But what does it do to my mind?”
The novel ends with a question as to whether Birnham will stop drinking. However, the fantasy-like ending of the film pictures Birnham, after an unsuccessful suicide attempt, willing himself to go on the wagon in order to write the great American novel called The Bottle and to take loving care of girlfriend Helen, played by Jane Wyman. The film was released in l945 as World War II was ending and combat fatigued G.I.’ s were returning home, struggling with their reentrance into civilian life. Some were dealing with alcohol dependence, so Hollywood wanted to show an upbeat solution to Birnham’s drinking problem.
Besides the fact that Uncle Paddy complained about the sightseers coming to his bar because of the film, there was one issue about the “Lost Weekend” that really upset him. The novel and the movie both had a character named Gloria who is a woman of the night and frequents Nat’s Bar looking for customers. In the film she and Don Birnham are mere acquaintances, but Birnham, in a happy moment, offers to take Gloria to dinner. As a good Irish Catholic and a bar owner, Paddy did not admit prostitutes; it was a major reason for the” ladies” entrance on 55th Street and for his ban on women standing by the bar. Paddy may have been bothered by this scene, but “Lost Weekend” would make Clarke’s Bar one of the centers of celebrity life in post-war Manhattan. It would never be the same neighborhood saloon again.
BIO: I teach at SFCC in writing dept and am a grandniece of PJ Clarke.